SOCIETY BEING as chaotic as it is these days, the odds against maintaining a stable family are increasingly slim. Moreover, with the threat of nuclear annihilation and large-scale destruction becoming increasingly likely, families continue to use any means possible to shelter their children from the unpleasant realities of the world.
Such efforts, however, generally prove futile. The more parents attempt to insulate their children, the more their kids wind up feeling anger and frustration. Consequently, when actual tragedy does strike, paralysis results.
Chris Cain's The Stone Boy, a touching--if somewhat contrived view of a small town Montana family struck by tragedy--is unmistakably an ideological throwback to Ordinary People. Both films present pictures of ostensibly cohesive, happy families; both revolve around the same tragic insident--the accidental death of an older son--and in the process both depict fairly typical people in the throes of crisis.
Yet despite noble attempts to rival its award winning predecessor. The Stone Boy is not, as some critics have maintained, another Ordinary People. Though the film does feature some quality acting making for several memorable and rather moving scenes, it does not provide a cathartic evening of personal introspection. The rural Montana pea fields in which the film takes place are as far a cry from the white collar, Illinois suburbs of Ordinary People as possible. And Glenn Close, who gives a convincing, and poignant portrayal of the Stone boy, alias Arthur's mother, is anything but the divisive, embittered figure that Mary Tyler Moore proved to be.
But these distinctions have little to do with the film's inability to truly move the audience. The fundamental reason The Stone Boy fails to click is not because of weak acting or cliched themes, but rather because of the heavy-handed manner in which they story gets told. Most of the film's messages lack subtlety, and the audience often senses that it is supposed to feel pity without substantial reason. Consequently, many of the scenes which have the potential to arouse the audience merely receive a lukewarm response.
Much of the film's heavy-handedness comes from the directness with which both director and screenwriter seem to approach the film. They seem impatient to tell the story to the audience, not allowing the characters to speak for themselves. Whereas in Ordinary People Conrad's guilt over is brothers death is gradually drawn out over the course of the film and not being explained until its climax, Arnold's accidental shooting of his older brother occurs within the first five minutes of the Stone Boys. Before we can even get into Arnold's head, the police sirens and funeral bells can already be heard.
Additionally, though Arnold's initial unwillingness to communicate to anyone but his wise old grandfather (Wilford Brimley) is ostensibly the central issue of the film, partially developed side-plots frequently creep in. The exploits and marital problems of Arnold's uncle Andy, for example, occupy a significant part of the movie, for no apparent reason other than to ultimately send Arnold on a cross-country bus journey to the glittery world of Las Vegas. It is there that Arthur begins to open up express his emotions, and in a moving, if somewhat contrived, scene aboard a bus, Arnold (Jason Presson) confesses to a stranger that "he did a terrible thing," Arthur subsequently returns to his grandfather, who helps him realize that he is ready to come home.
MORE THAN SIMPLY a story of crisis, The Stone Boy is also the story of a boy's growing up. Arthur's transition from adolescence to manhood produces some of the film's most memorable and painful scenes, including a moving confessional by Robert Duvall that he is lonely and wants his son Arnold to come home. The scenes between Close and Duvall also are highly powerful, though occasionally encumbered by trite phrases.
On the whole, The Stone Boy is a moving picture of Montana life, and of the pain that can result when even the closest of families insulates their children from life's harshness. Yet because of the film's heavy-handed treatment, it both fails to stir fully the audience in the same way that similar films like Ordinary People. The stone boy melts in this movie, by the audience only partially thaws.