Who decides what makes a mother?
Margaret and Charles Lewin have been caring for their adopted son Isaiah for over three years now. His crack-addicted mother, an illiterate young woman named Khaila, abandoned the poor child in a garbage can. After a stint in prison and a trying time adjusting to a world without drugs, Khaila is clean. And when she learns that the child she "threw away" is still alive, she has one clear goal: she wants her baby boy back, and she will do anything to get him. Through the self-help group she is involved in, she connects with the ideologically motivated lawyer, Kadar Lewis, who sues the Lewins for custody. The case turns ugly when race (the Lewins are upper class whites; Khaila is impoverished and black) and family secrets are brought to the forefront. But in the end, what is on everyone's mind is the devastating impact, not only to the child, but to family and feelings as well if the Lewins (or Khaila for that matter) end up Losing Isaiah.
Losing Isaiah is political grandstanding as family melodrama. It is a cautionary tale about making incredibly dumb choices in life and whining when you have to pay the legal piper. So full of social agendas that it could function as the basis for a system of government, its ripped-from-the-headlines (or at least, the newspapers from eight years ago) hysteria is matched only by its inability to play fair. Cases like the one at the center of this film are classic "can't win" situations fed into the Hollywood histrionics machine and manipulated into simplistic stories of people with pouts. We aren't just talking about simple child custody here. In this example, it's us versus them, the put-upon minority versus the self-righteous slave master. Losing Isaiah loves to take the concepts of stereotyping, profiling, and racism and conveniently skim over them in favor of explosive exploitative jingoism, all in the service of a courtroom character study as unadulterated pap. It's typical of the Tinseltown system of cynics. This is merely more of the same well-acted mumbo jumbo they specialize in: the kind of begging-for-Oscar-consideration shell game where the obvious plot flaws, sidestepped realities of the world, and vacant characterizations are brushed aside for easy answers, quick fixes, and intense crying jags. We are supposed to have our cultural sensitivities tested by this issue-brandishing balderdash, but Losing Isaiah is really not that interested in making a salient point. It just wants us to feel bad for a little abandoned baby and hopes that our heritage and parental instincts fill in the plot holes.
It's hard to feel any sympathy for the characters here. Everyone is functioning out of a completely selfish and socially predetermined set of ideals. As our female infant fighters, Halle Berry and Jessica Lange are two sides of the same "who cares" coin. Both women want Isaiah for reasons that are far from rational. Berry feels biology shred at her tear ducts and she wants back the little boy that she deposited in a garbage can like spent 40s. Lange just wants an infant to cuddle, a pre-adolescent example of her career in social work made human, to make up for her incredibly frigid family life. When they fight for the child, they're not really fighting for the right to parent, to love and nurture. No, instead they just want ethnic bragging rights, a chance to prove the other race wrong in their determination as what's in the best interest of this kid. We get all manner of overwrought orations and misplaced witness stand monologues to make it clear just where the dogma is digging all the time. And then after we are dragged through the faux emotional turmoil, heavy-handed reparations, and had our heartstrings snapped like catgut on an over tuned guitar, the movie up and cheats on us. Actually, it negates its very existence by what it does. As not to spoil the ending, let's just say that there is no real "final" decision in this movie. No one really "loses" Isaiah. Someone could argue that it only proves that it takes a village to raise a child. Unfortunately, Losing Isaiah makes it clear that someone in the mud huts better have a good job and unlimited resources to do so.
Paramount releases Losing Isaiah in typical "Extras? We don't give no stinking extras!" fashion, guaranteeing that only fans or devotees to the actors involved will be lining up to pick up this product. The good news is that the transfer is first rate, a rich and detailed 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image that captures a very urban fall feeling in the Chicago setting. On the sound side, there are separate options for either 5.1 or 2.0 surround. Don't bother. Neither is as immersive as it thinks it is. And after all, who wants to feel like they're in a ghetto high-rise or cold courtroom? And that's it. No trailer or other contextual material.
Losing Isaiah is the kind of film that doesn't apologize for its flaws since you can tell it feels it's fighting consistently on the side of right. It hopes to illuminate several universal stigmas while compressing hot button issues into TV movie manageable shorthand. It squanders a great many talented people (Cuba Gooding Jr., David Strathairn, and Samuel L. Jackson all show up and "represent") in the name of race and child rearing. But perhaps the biggest crime it commits is manipulating us into choosing sides, only to forge unrealistic alliances behind our backs.
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