Sunday, April 1, 2012
It's not often that a new movie opening comes to my attention by means of a controversy over its critical reviews, but that is indeed why I decided to trek out of town today to catch an afternoon showing of the new film "October Baby" on one of the 390 screens that it is showing on in America this week.
I first heard of the movie when I read Roger Ebert's two-star review as I was scanning his site. Hmm.
It really caught my attention when I read Brent Bozell's pusback on the criticism on Breitbart's Big Hollywood site.
And it came full circle when I read my friend Nell Minnow's pushback on the pushback on Beliefnet.
You'll notice on the Rotten Tomatoes entry for this movie that there is a critic rating of 24% and an audience rating of 89%. That is a indicator, of course, that there is a controversy. It's been said that the audience disparity doesn't matter because the audience raters are a self selected group. That case was not made however for a similar movie, "Natural Selection" - which I saw and enjoyed at EbertFest 2011 and reviewed here on LCPB. That film had a critic rating of 81% and an audience rating of 88%. I was thinking of Natural Selection while I was watching October Baby, as both are films are about a woman going on a road trip / faith journey after finding out that much of what they thought they knew about their lives was a lie. The audience rating (and my reaction) was identically favorable to both. The critic rating disparity on these two film says - to me at least - that the cultural left that film critics come monolithically from is fine if that journey is away from faith, not so much if it reaffirms faith. That's just my take.
So, what is October Baby about? Nominally, it is about abortion and adoption.
And therein lies the controversy. Are there any touchier topics in film in America? No. Given 52 million abortions in America since Roe v. Wade in 1973, there is statistically a high probability that any viewer has some personal stake in an abortion story - either their own, their spouse's or significant other's, or a family member or friend. We, myself included, bring our own understanding of that act into the theater and to the movie's treatment of it. Similarly with the related issue of adoption and a search for a birth parent. As an adoptive father myself, can I help but to see this movie somewhat through the vantage point of John Schneider's character of the adoptive father?
Specifically, this movie is about college freshman Hannah's discovery that not only is she adopted, but that her physical ailments are related to that fact that her birth complications were as a result of a failed abortion procedure.
Stop right there. Is this just right-wing ugly propagandist fiction? Does that really happen, babies surviving failed abortions? Well, if you've been tuned into the right-to-life movement in the past couple of decades, as I have, you will recognize this as the true life story of Gianna Jessen. Jessen survived a saline abortion and went on to overcome birth complications of cerebal palsy to become a recording artist and gifted speaker. She is listed in the credits of October Baby as a consultant to the film. That brings veracity to this film.
As Hannah journeys to find the true facts of her birth that her adoptive parents have not shared with her, she tracks down the traumatized nurse who participated in the interrupted abortion - a riveting and healing scene with Jasmine Guy...
Stop right there. More propaganda? Does that happen in real life in America? Traumatized nurses? Again, pro-life folks will recognize that as a parallel to the story of Jill Stanek. Stanek was a pro-choice nurse until she discovered a baby in a closet left to die, a accidental survivor of a failed abortion. Stanek went on to fight for the Born Alive Infant Protection Act in Illinois. Again, Guy's scene and Stanek's real life tale bring veracity to this film.
Stop again. Why do none of the reviews that I have read talk about the real life stories of Gianna Jessen - the survivor of a failed abortion? Or about Jill Stanek and other real life nurses who have been traumatized by participating in abortion procedures? Those are relevant topics in a movie like this. Why? Because, I think, they are taboo subjects in the "abortion rights" circles that critics travel in. Can't admit that there are failed abortions and maimed survivors, or that there are traumatized nurses. That's why.
Hannah journeys on. Does she find her birth mother? Does she find the truth? And does the truth bring healing? Yes. Not just to Hannah, but to her adoptive parents, and to the nurse, and to her birth mother.
And how is the tone of the film? Is it ugly and hateful? Is it how it was described by the NYT film critic:
"But not even a dewy heroine and a youth-friendly vibe can disguise the essential ugliness at its core: like the bloodied placards brandished by demonstrators outside women’s health clinics, the film communicates in the language of guilt and fear."
No, it is not. It communicates in the language of a Christian film, in the language of forgiveness. Hannah is the aggrieved party in the story of her life. And forgiveness is essential to healing. And not just for herself.
I said earlier, that the movie is nominally about abortion. But not just about abortion like you think it is about abortion. Like most critics saw it, as anti-abortion propaganda. It's not just about the "choice" to abort. It's about everyone involved living with that choice. Again, those in the pro-life movement will recognize what this movie is about: post-abortion healing. It's a topic often discussed in the right-to-life movement.
I said this topic is often personal, right? Well, that thought takes me back to the mid-1990s and a visit I made to Chicago. I was flirting at the time with a ministry ordination. Not to preach, but as a deacon in compassionate ministries. In that context I attended the National Right to Life Convention for a few days. The keynote speaker at that convention was someone I mentioned earlier in this article - Brent Bozell. One of the topics that Bozell spoke on that night, and the main purpose for my attendance at the conference, was the topic of post-abortion healing. In the wake of that conference I gave my one and only sermon from my church's puplit, a sermon titled "The Church's Compassionate Response to Abortion". Yes, our church has a doctrine. Yes, our church opposes the practice of abortion. Yes, also, our church is compassionately involved in post-abortion healing. That sermon led me into actual post-abortion counseling situations. I am attuned to it when I see it. And I see it and Hannah and the nurse and in the mother, all of who have a need to address the past. The nurse, who said she needed to tell her truth, has a valid story to tell.
Is October Baby a good film, as a film? Yes, it is. It has a high production value, at least equal to the well-received Natural Selection. It has gorgeous photography. It has competent and sometimes inspired acting. It has all of the plot elements of an engaging film: a discovery, a road trip, a budding romance, conflict and resolution. It treats both faith and angst respectfully. It has a supportive message soundtrack ripped right from the Contemporary Christian radio station that I listen to daily.
It is a good film. And it is a film with a point of view, and a valid message that is a needed - but often missing - component of the abortion debate in this country. That message is not a hateful or oppressive message about banning abortion. That message is about the very real topic of post-abortion healing.
If you didn't get that from the movie, stay for the credits. You'll see a very moving testimony from one of the actresses in the film, who literally found her own post-abortion healing through her scenes. And you'll see a link to a post-abortion counseling ministry that has partnered with the producers. Powerful emotional stuff. I was deeply moved. Which is what a good film does.