Judge Jennifer Malkowski also has 19 kids, for a single reason that is far less humanitarian than the DeBolts': world domination. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!
"You know, being a mother of 19 can be pretty hilarious…one day the phone rang and I grabbed it, and this little voice said, 'Mom, this is Jennifer. Can I go up to the playground?' And I said, 'Sure, honey, but be home by five o'clock.' I hung up the telephone and I remembered we don't have a kid named Jennifer!"
The central question of the Oscar-winning documentary Who Are the DeBolts? is neither "who are the DeBolts?" nor "where did they get 19 kids?" but is more like, "how could they possibly manage such a big household with so many special needs?" It's a intriguing situation that should yield some incredible footage of high highs and low lows, big challenges and big triumphs. But the DeBolts—or perhaps director John Korty's editing—make it look easy. A little too easy…
Facts of the Case
Dorothy had six kids of her own when her first husband died. When she started a new family with Robert DeBolt, they gradually accumulated a dozen more. All of the adopted children are special-needs kids, coming from places as far away as Vietnam and living with disabilities ranging from blindness to polio injuries to severe paralysis. John Korty examines daily life at the DeBolt household in Piedmont, Calif., in an effort to reveal how a family with so many physical limitations manages to survive and thrive as its own microcosmic melting pot of cultures and abilities.
If you were to sit down and flip TV channels in the late '70s and had to choose between a showing of Who Are the DeBolts? and an episode of The Brady Bunch, the main criteria in your decision might be whether you wanted to see a big family of kids with or without crutches, because other than that, there isn't too much difference between the two. If Korty set out to capture footage of both the struggles and the joys of the DeBolts' unique situation, only the latter really made it into the final cut, which is my main criticism of this otherwise fascinating film. Frankly, I just have trouble believing it could be that easy to keep a family so big and complex on track. Possible? Yes. Rewarding? Of course. Easy, though, seems like a stretch. But apparently, each new day dawns with a new water balloon fight or family sing-along for this manically happy partying clan. In the "Steppin' Out" featurette, for example, Dorothy and Bob admit that they almost gave up on JR, a blind boy who is also paralyzed from the waist down. They say that he had so much trouble trying to walk and build up his upper body strength that they almost gave up hope for his improvement. But in the original film, JR's story is a happy one of steady progress culminating with him "climbing the mountain" of their winding staircase by himself. We never get a sense that he is struggling because Korty only gives us comments about how much he has improved and sequences of him working out with heavier and heavier weights. For a film about a family so determined to make their children independent and never to condescend to them, it feels like Korty is condescending to his audience rather than his subjects, assuming we won't see inspiration or beauty in this story if he allows its darker parts to manifest in the film.
That being said, Korty is way ahead of his time in his treatment of the disabled DeBolts. While his level of sophistication in depicting them doesn't reach Murderball levels, he keeps the smarmy, inspirational, or pitying narration almost completely out of the film. He's not afraid to let the scenes of the kids managing their physical challenges run long, allowing the audience to marvel at what Karen can do, for example. One of the younger children, she was born without arms or legs. But she can still go swimming, and when she's done, she manages to dry off and wriggle into her complicated prosthetic arms and legs without any help. Oh, and she also plays the marimba. Korty understands that viewers will be very curious about how she can do these things and he satisfies that curiosity with the footage he includes, understanding that quietly bearing witness to this accomplishment is not disrespectful or demeaning to a girl who is vocally proud of these abilities. One of the most joyful moments in this documentary is watching the excited Karen jumping on the bed with her sisters, minus the prosthetics, in this completely unique way that honestly just looks cool.
Like many of Docurama's offerings, this transfer is using a pretty dirty print. There are noticeable flecks and scratches throughout, with an occasional bigger defect. The sound quality is accordingly mediocre, though the dialogue is fairly clear. Really, the transfer just shows the age and budget of the film. Again, like many Docurama discs, one is mostly thankful that this '70s documentary made it to DVD at all.
The main extra on this disc is almost as long and comprehensive as the film itself, though is of a lower caliber stylistically and tonally. The featurette "Steppin' Out: The DeBolts Grow Up" is a 48-minute documentary that probably aired on television following up on the DeBolts a few years later (the copyright is from 1980),complete with narration by Kris Kristofferson. Said narration is the biggest problem this piece has, giving in to the kind of aforementioned smarmy, condescending narration. While sappy music plays on the soundtrack, Kristofferson reads lines like, "He never gave up" or "That's what a family is. They love you, push you when you need it, and help you do your best." This is the kind of emotion-laden, didactic commentary whose absence gave the original film such a boost. If one can ignore the narration and the music, it is interesting to see the kids a little older. JR is attempting his first day of "regular" school after a long stint at a school for the blind. Li has just had her first letter from her biological family in Vietnam from whom she was separated as a little girl. The DeBolts get their first grandchild, a little girl who talks with one of the blind kids about colors the latter can't see. The other problem with this featurette is that not enough time has passed to really make this a significant update. The film mostly feels like an extension of the original. We get a little more information on what the DeBolt children are doing now from the "Debolt Family Updates," though only a line of text is given to each family member. The other two biographies are just a couple screens of text giving more background on the DeBolt parents and filmmaker John Korty. As usual, Docurama's catalogue of amazing films is included on the disc, though this one does not feature any trailers apart from the few that precede the main menu screen.
Director John Korty boldly depicts the unique physical abilities and disabilities of the DeBolt family without flinching. Where he does show a bit too much fear is in his hesitance to portray the psychological and social difficulties of running such a huge, high-maintenance family and any tolls that may take on its members.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski hereby releases director John Korty on probation. He must remain at least 500 feet away from the set of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, so as not to get any more bad ideas.
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