2 Hrs., 6 Mins.
Mask February 21, 2018
director more indulgent than Peter Bogdanovich wouldn’t get Mask (1985) right. A sincere biographical drama about a bright boy growing up with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia in 1970s California, it has the potential to be off-puttingly maudlin – an ethos-dependent coming-of-age tragedy set on manipulating us into shedding a couple tears.
Yet for a movie whose take-home message is that we should never let our limitations get the best of us – which is generally associated with little-
minded soap operatics – nothing about it is ever obvious. Unfeigned and aching, it is the rare heartbreak heavy melodrama whose laughs and tears are earned. Where another filmmaker might lean more heavily into scenes featuring outbursts of emotion, Bogdanovich is rather subversively set on amplifying the quieter moments. He’s interested in using multidimensional characterizations as mechanisms to get us involved with the story instead of histrionic plot points. By its end, the triumphs and losses faced by the central characters feel very much like our own.
The film stars Eric Stoltz as Rocky, a 16-year-old redhead trying to live a normal life amid setbacks that make his existence particularly abnormal. This can be difficult, though: In addition to being raised by a single mom named Rusty (Cher) who’s both fiercely supportive and irritatingly reckless (she’s a perpetual party-goer with a penchant for drugs and bad men), he also is afflicted with a disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia that makes his life infinitely harder.
Affecting just a few members of the population, the disorder entails that a dangerous amount of calcium builds up around its sufferer’s skull, causing facial features to swell cartoonishly. (This causes a mask-like visage, and assures hurtful, unceasing dirty looks from strangers.) Because so much pressure is put on the cranium, most who have the disorder don’t live past their teenage years.
Rocky and Rusty know this. But both try to maintain ordinariness as best they can. Such isn’t hard, anyway, given how remarkably intelligent Rocky is and how determined Rusty is to bolster his unpredictable levels of self-confidence. Fortunately, most people also accept him once they get to know him as more than a curiosity.
But there is always a mist of bittersweetness hanging in the air: we’re always prepared for tragedy, and we’re consistently reminded that, if Rocky didn’t have this disorder, he’d be put on a pedestal as a mover and a shaker rather than a kid making the most of his situation.
Mask watches him go about life with nonchalance, and this emphasis on naturalism is what makes the movie hit us so hard: it’s an especially subtle coming-of-age movie made all the more powerful because of the predetermined tragedy always waiting around the corner. We have to relish everything we see.
There’s a lot to savor here. The characterizations, sketched out carefully by screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan, are immaculate; we know these people, and we grow to care for them. As an effect, the relationships depicted practically sing in their touchable affection: Rusty and Rocky’s mother/son bond is realistically fractured but scorchingly loving; Rocky’s fondness for his mom’s lover and his own makeshift father figure, Gar (Sam Elliott), is affecting and perfectly realized by a set of hushed heart to hearts; and the eventual romance seen between Rocky and a congenial blind girl (Laura Dern) is heartrending and faultlessly tender. These affinities, of course, are reinforced by strong performances by a compassionate ensemble.
It’s a staggeringly moving film, defined by warmhearted writing and direction and exquisite performances. The myriad understated but clear-eyed scenes of sorrow and victory alike are wondrously put forth, too. This is the uncommon tearjerker whose memorability comes less from its ability to incur dewy eyes and more from its believable set of characters and situations. It’s one of Bogdanovich’s best, and most successful, middle-period movies. A-