Half a million children are in the foster care system. Many of them are there because of neglect or abuse. The state tries to place them with families but more often these children stay as wards until the age of 18 when they're set adrift. The problem is most are adrift long before that happens.
If you know Emmy-winning talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, then you know that adoption and foster care are two big issues for her. The popular comedian outed herself as a lesbian in part due to homophobic legal troubles she met while trying to adopt several years ago.
O'Donnell stars as Dr. Maureen Brennan, a therapist at a foster care facility in Michigan. Brennan seems to have no children or family of her own. We're not sure because we're granted no access to Brennan's life.
It's a similar restraint witnessed by Denzel Washington in Antwone Fisher (2002), which allowed us to focus less on the famous actor and more on the younger, titular character. Here, that character is a 17-year-old boy who needs counseling but like Antwone Fisher resists it. That's where Brennan steps in. She has to break through to the troubled boy, a boy of mixed racial heritage aptly named America Vega.
Vega is played by Philip Johnson. This is Johnson's first on-screen project. He's so new an actor that he has no IMDB page at all, not even a bare bones one. Johnson had no acting aspirations before this. He actually had plans to become an engineer. O'Donnell found him in a Detroit diner and convinced him to be in this movie.
Not having really been trained, there's a roughness in his performance that I appreciated. For the most part, Johnson had to be stoic, quiet and unexpressive, which as a non-actor meant that he didn't have to do too much work.
Johnson really only had one or two "acting" moments, and they occur at the end of the movie. The last one I think he sufficiently sells. Yes, it's a powerful, tear-jerking moment. So strong, he's certainly able to turn his co-star into a weepy mess.
Johnson reminds me of a younger Brian J. White (Stomp the Yard and The Game Plan). He's clearly a handsome young man, quite fit, capable, and handles this delicate material with some aplomb, but this was only a starter vehicle.
This Antwone Fisher story is used as a way of immersing us into the foster care system, which from the looks of director Yves Simoneau is run like a prison, an insane asylum, or a scarier college dorm.
Written and produced by O'Donnell, the only alternative to the scary dorm is the even scarier streets. O'Donnell reiterates in narration that most wards end up on these streets or in jail following their eighteenth birthday. This is O'Donnell's passion project, as a plea to Americans to do something about it.
What I would have preferred is if O'Donnell offered a more concrete something, as an example, that we Americans could do. O'Donnell has proven to be not only an adoption advocate but a gay rights activist as well.
The 2008 election saw the issue of same-sex couples adopting put on the ballot in some states. The result wasn't favorable for gay people. Perhaps, O'Donnell could have pushed that as a possible solution here.
It would have given this movie some push. As it stands, this story has no goal. O'Donnell's ending is more of an elegy with only a slight glimmer of hope. It's the most pessimistic I've seen the former Queen of Nice.
The story drifts. It hits us with a knockout punch eventually, but it's a rather predictable one. It opens a door to discussing abuse, especially sexual abuse within the black community. For that, and the discovery of a fresh face with potential, I give O'Donnell some credit.
Three Stars out of Five
Unrated but recommended for mature audiences
Running Time: 2 hrs.