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‘Losing Isaiah’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 17, 1995

A birth mother and the woman who adopted her child plead their respective cases in "Losing Isaiah," an oh-so-careful cogitation on the pros and cons of interracial adoption. While the subject may be controversial enough to merit an Oprah free-for-all, this evenhanded melodrama is neutral to a fault.

Jessica Lange, in full-blown caring mode, plays Margaret, a social worker who adopts a crack baby found abandoned in an alley. Several years later the child's birth mother, Khaila (Halle Berry), a rehabilitated ex-con, sues Margaret and her husband (sensitive David Strathairn) for custody of the toddler, Isaiah (frisky Marc John Jefferies).

Khaila's lawyer (Samuel L. Jackson) takes an Afro-centric view: A black child should have a black mother. Motivated by her desire to make amends, Khaila wants her baby back. But Margaret believes that skin color isn't as important as love. A courtroom battle of the usual sort ensues.

Director Stephen Gyllenhaal is reunited here with producer-screenwriter Naomi Foner, with whom he made the tiresome and histrionic Debra Winger vehicle "A Dangerous Woman." This collaboration is less of a narrative mess than that film; still, "Losing Isaiah" is basically a TV movie that got above its raising. The actors, all of them quite good, are essentially mouthpieces for one view or the other.

Lange, like Winger in "A Dangerous Woman," has never looked worse: Tears spill from her tired eyes and stringy locks frame her lined, puffy face. She grinds her teeth to show her barely contained rage, her Big Scene ready to pour out in a passionate, babbling cascade. Berry, on the other hand, is more controlled in her transformation from defeated addict to determined young striver. But Jackson gives the film's most striking performance, as a didactic lawyer with more interest in setting a legal precedent than winning the case for Khaila.

The supporting cast includes Cuba Gooding Jr. as Khaila's charming love interest and Daisy Eagan as Isaiah's jealous 11-year-old sister. But these characters exist solely to fill out Foner's thin story line.

"Losing Isaiah" contains only a few moments that expose the human beings beneath the P.C. symbols. And that is where a good film inevitably takes us: beneath the surface, and ultimately beneath the skin.

Losing Isaiah is rated R for drug use, language and adult subject matter.

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