Deploying the usual armada of superlatives in attempting to praise "Who Are the DeBolts-And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?" risks compromising both the power and the delicacy of the film. This extraordinary documentary study of an amazing American family will be seen Sunday ar 5 p.m. on Channel 7.
Dorothy and Robert Debolt are, to answer the questions in the film's title, a married couple in the San Francisco Bay area, and they got 13 of their 19 kids by adlpting them. The family is not only multiracial and multinational now, but also includes many children with severe physical disabilities. In this family, however, "disability" is an unknown word and "handicapped" virtually verboten.
The commendable thing about writer-director John Korty's film-an Academy Award-winner shortened by about 20 minutes for telecast-is that it takes on the qualities of its subjects. It is resourceful, independent, joyful and uncomplaining-a much richer experience than the syrupy tearjerker one might be led to expect.
We see the DeBolts doing things every family does. They wrestle and tickle and horse around; they take baths and bake cokkies; they squabble and grumble. But what might be a casual occurence in another household can become a momentous event here; for J.R., blind and paralysed from the waist downm climbing the stairs for the first time is roughly equivalent to taking man's first footsteps on the moon, and the expression on his face as he completes the climb is one of triumph.
In perhaps the most astonishing sequence, 5-year-old Karen, a child born without arms or legs, dresses herself and fastens prosthetic devices to her limbs that make her physically complete. For her, it is a ritual no more significant, really, than brushing one's teeth, and it is accomplished with similar dispatch. You watch this and think to yourself that you will never complain about any inconvenience again.
Korty and his crew were there when the children had to be told of the death of a grandma at the age of 93, and they went along on a mountain camping trip that was dramatically and photogenically blessed with an unexpected snowfall. Simple domestic rituals like a birthday party or songs sung around the piano become uncommonly poignant but never maudlin, and the touch is so deft that two of the boys delivering newspapers on crutches not only have fun but get a chance to be funny.
"Who are the DeBolts?" may be the most affirmative and yet least preachy inspirational document ever put on him. It is unassailable.
The film was submitted to all three TV networks more than a year ago and all three turned it down, refusing it again, even after it had won the Oscar. ABC was uninterested until network star Henry ("The Fonz") Winkler became involved. Winkler, listed as "executive producer," appears at eht beginning and end of the film with the family and recorded a new narration to replace the original.
Most ABC-TV stations showed the film last Sunday, but Channel 7 thoughtlessly and heartlessly delayed the telecast here. Whenever and however it is seen, "Who Are the DeBolts?" is not the kind of film to slip your mind once you have seen it. The resilience and casual valor portrayed are contagious, and the film dwarfs most fictional attempts to elicit the same kinds of responses.