- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

“It’s been an up-and-down year,” observes Susan Tom at the conclusion of “My Flesh and Blood,” an exceptionally stirring and humbling family chronicle that opens exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema today. A distinguished leftover from last year’s bumper crop of auspicious documentary features, the movie revolves around her ongoing willingness to be the adoptive mother to several children, many with conspicuous physical disabilities.

The stout, bespectacled and stoical Mrs. Tom is divorced and the mother of two grown biological sons, no longer residents of her teeming suburban home in Fairfield, Calif. She endears herself as a master of understatement long before the “up-and-down” remark. Discussing the dim prospects for a second marital alliance at her point in life, Mrs. Tom reflects, “I seem to attract people who want me to take care of them.”

A mate who couldn’t lend a hand with the Tom brood would be of little use to this woman of the house. Mrs. Tom shelters nine children as the movie begins. Tensions are evident with Mrs. Tom’s most loyal helper, 18-year-old Margaret, the senior of the adopted children. An entering student at the local community college, Margaret suffers a powerful attack of self-pity at one point, demoralized by the thought that all her unpaid labor around the house goes unappreciated and threatens to be indefinitely confining.

An early Halloween interlude dispels expectations of a mawkish portrait of a family that must cope with disabilities. The vivacious Xenia, a 13-year-old of Russian extraction who has no legs, is gleefully recruited for an amateur version of the magician’s illusion of sawing a woman in half. Joe, a 15-year-old born with cystic fibrosis, does the honors as the man with the saw.

The focus of episodes both gratifying and alarming, Joe is the most mercurial presence in the movie. He scares everyone time and time again, and it’s easy to see why. The filmmakers even put us on alert during the prologue, which finds Joe fuming and muttering death threats. The movie would earn an “R” rating solely on the basis of Joe’s obscene remarks to Susan.

Nevertheless, the rage to live in this boy whose hold on life is so precarious may remain the single most poignant aspect of a movie that scarcely needs to overreach to generate overwhelming pathos. All Jonathan Karsh and his associates really need to do is keep the camera and recording equipment open to domestic life and caretaking obligations in the raw.

Susan Tom’s background and personal history emerge in a methodical and revealing way, usually with the subject herself as our principal informant. But not always. A visit by Susan’s mother clarifies some parts of the past that would probably remain obscure without her participation.

Some spectators will probably be reminded of an Oscar-winning documentary of a generation ago, John Korty’s “Who are the DeBolts? And Why Did They Get Nineteen Kids?” Also set in Northern California, the Korty film observed a well-to-do couple who had adopted numerous orphans, often foreign-born and physically handicapped to some degree.

Susan Tom depends on public assistance to subsidize her titanic domestic vocation. Only the churlish are likely to question the wisdom of encouraging such dedication, but it obviously exacts a price in sorrow and loneliness.

***1/2

TITLE: “My Flesh and Blood”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, involving documentary depictions of some children with severe physical handicaps; fleeting profanity; and episodes of intense domestic conflict)

CREDITS: Directed by Jonathan Karsh. Cinematography by Amanda Michel. Sound by Craig Burton. Music by B. Quincy Griffin and Hector Perez. Editing by Eli Olsen.

RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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