Movie Review by Debbie Winkler
Starring: Kate Nelligan, Judd Hirsch, Stockard Channing, David Dukes, Jacqueline Brookes
Director: Stanley R. Jaffe
Release Date: 4 February 1983
Length: 120 minutes
Movie Rating: PG
View Format: TV
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) waves goodbye to her son, Alex (Danny Corkill), in the morning and has her worst nightmare come true when he never comes home. Susan receives an outpouring of support as the search begins for her son. News reporters pester her for interviews and TV appearances, police officers are stationed in her home around the clock, and the parents at Alex’s school canvass the neighborhood with posters. However, as time passes and there is no sign of Alex, the support gradually tapers off. Instead of helping Susan look for Alex, friends and family are now trying to help Susan come to terms with the fact that Alex may never be coming home. This movie is based on the book Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon, which is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of Etan Patz.
This movie reaches in and grabs hold of your heart very early on in the film. Of course, you know Alex goes missing before you start watching the movie so it is not a surprise when he disappears. What the film does so well though is to capture a beautiful morning between mother Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) and her only child, Alex (Danny Corkill). Susan and her husband, Graham (David Dukes), have recently separated and there is a very close bond between mother and child. Susan wakes up a sleepy Alex and persuades him to get out of bed and get ready for school. She doesn’t yell at Alex when he barges into the bathroom while she is showering to try and talk about a friend’s birthday present. Alex asks for Cheerios for breakfast the next morning, rather than the eggs that Susan made for him that morning. They play with the dog, they talk about inviting Alex’s dad to his birthday party and you can feel the love and the relationship between these two. The beginning of the movie has a tremendous impact on the viewer. You know how close the mother and child are and that Alex disappearing is going to be absolutely devastating for her. As Susan says goodbye to Alex and the cute little boy turns around to wave goodbye, you know that this is the last time she will see him before he disappears. The movie is old and looks dated and a bit faded, but the beginning just pulled me and made me interested and invested in the characters from the beginning. Bravo on making a poignant, touching opening to this movie. If the story hadn’t been so interesting, the cringe-inducing synthesizer soundtrack would have driven me far away within moments, but, fortunately, I was able to stick with it!
Unfortunately, as the movie progresses past the first 45 minutes, it loses a bit of steam. The first part deals with a frantic effort by the police, friends, family and neighbors to look for Alex, follow up leads, wait for a blackmail request, anything to indicate that Alex is still alive. After the first month or so, there are very few people still looking for Alex. Susan is probably the only one who still believes that Alex is alive and she pushes away family and friends as they try to help her realize that she can have a life without her little boy. The sense of isolation, abandonment, frustration, and loss is very difficult to convey on a screen. Kate Nelligan is able to show the viewer Susan Selky’s emotions quite well and she has a tremendous range, but this part of the movie was just a little boring. Susan is so stoic, so silent and blank-faced that it can be difficult to relate to her at first. Fortunately, the director included a few scenes where Susan blows up at loved ones and this helped me relate to her a bit more. I am not sure if the director was trying to give the viewers a sense of waiting and how hard it is to keep hoping without any information, but I think this part went on for a bit too long. You kind of coast along for about 30 – 45 minutes and then you can sense that the ending is coming and things start happening again. Still, I was thoroughly engaged in the characters by then and this is a testament to some great performances by the cast.
Kate Nelligan leads the cast and is in almost every scene. She is just what you would want a mother to be that is missing their child. Focused, driven, and willing to sacrifice anything to get her son back. Her character is also shattered and groping for answers as she comes to realize that people and surroundings she has known for years are not at all what they seem to be. Judd Hirsch was terrific as Al Hirsch, the detective assigned to investigate Alex’s disappearance. He desperately wants to give Susan good news, but they have no leads and the case has gone completely cold. The only people that are still calling about the case are crackpots, psychics and other weirdoes. I loved that Al was a family man and that, while his wife joked about getting a divorce, they were a strong unit and he tried to spend time with his wife and children. If Susan’s character was the heart of the movie, Al was the soul of the movie. These two characters interfaced so well together and, even though they did not always agree on what to do to find Alex, they worked together and suffered together. The fabulous Stockard Channing is also in this movie as the best friend of Susan. I personally felt like she was underutilized as Susan and Al are the main characters and everyone else is kind of on the periphery, but she made the most of her role. Her hair is huge and her look is very dated, but, as Jocelyn Norris, she is a great friend to Susan. I confess that I suspected her of kidnapping Alex for a little bit as she seemed almost too supportive and too nice, but she is just trying to be a great friend.
After I watched this movie, I looked it up online to see if any of this film was based on fact and was surprised to see that it is based on a book, which is based on the true story of a child who went missing in New York. The book is called Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon. The little boy who went missing in real life is named Etan Patz. Etan was six-years-old when he went missing, Alex was six, almost seven years old. Both boys had less than two blocks to walk to the bus stop/school. Both boys never made it to school and their mothers discovered this after school was over. The movie shows the media circus, the national attention and the overwhelming support for the missing boys, but, after that, they diverge somewhat. Etan Patz’s disappearance led to a missing children’s movement that we still see today including putting missing children’s photographs on milk cartons, new legislation and some new ways of searching for missing children. ****Spoiler alert**** I was totally convinced that the movie would end very much the same way that the real-life story ended. I thought that the movie would just kind of wind down and fizzle out as Susan realized her son was gone forever. Etan Patz was legally declared dead in 2001, 22 years after he went missing. New York state is still working on solving his disappearance, but there are no updates. It was such a pleasant surprise in the movie to realize that they were going to go with a traditional Hollywood ending and have Alex come home safe and sound. A random, crazy-sounding tip comes in and it leads to a really emotional ending. Of course, the ending is over-the-top and totally unbelievable, but it was also really touching. There is a whole stream of police cars who elect to follow Alex home and make sure he arrives safely. I was thinking of how rarely the police are able to take good news to parents in this position and found it really touching. Then you have Susan, who doesn’t know that Alex has been found, until she sees him running towards her. Cue the dropped grocery bag, the family pet racing to greet Alex, the photographers snapping pictures as the mother and son hug, and then end shot/film. ****Spoiler end****
While this movie is dated and by-the-book without any surprises, it is also quite well done. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated and even stayed up late to finish watching it as I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen! The performances are solid from the cast, the characters are likeable and interesting and I am a sucker for movies based on true stories. If you stumble across this movie on late-night TV or online, take some time to watch it as it still resonates with viewers even though it is much older now.
This movie is about a little boy who has been kidnapped. There are discussions of child molestation and abuse as the police and everyone else wonders why Alex was taken. Susan’s housekeeper is a homosexual man who is arrested for soliciting a prostitute and using a whip. They find sex toys in his apartment and he has a previous arrest report for statutory rape. Susan’s husband (separated) has many “friends” and he sleeps around with his female students. There are some scenes of mild violence, drinking, smoking, and mild language. Recommended for ages 10 and up.