NBC has put tonight's two - hour network movie, "Son - Rise: A Miracle of Love," under the arbitrary and meaningless "NBC Theater" umbrella. It is not theater, although it qualifies as another of television's increasingly frequent Theater of Uplift dramas about the overcoming of personal obstacles and handicaps.
On that level, and as an absorbing case study, "Son - Rise," at 9 on Channel 4, works well. It is based on the true story of Raun Kaufman, a child who appeared normal at birth but who, it later developed, suffered from autism, a little-understood disorder that made him largely oblivious to the world around him, unable to speak, react, remember of learn.
Director Glenn Jordan and the writers were straightforward about telling this story without gratuitous grand - stand emotionalism; their most serious infraction, not as intrusive, as it may sound, was to have Debby Boone burst forth in full throb on the sound - tracking singing "Is There Room in Your World for Me," not once but twice.
Still, there is a reticence and decency about the film's approach that keeps it from grovelling before our soft - heartedness. A shot of the child wearing his "Little Person" shirt as he sits in a high chair, mindlessly and helplessly tapping his spoon in rhythm, makes its point with no nudging. The child is alone, trapped in a unverse no wider than that chair.
But the drama also raises some troublesome questions about "fact - based" fictions and the propriety of building a national uplifter around the life of a human being who has no say in the matter.
Although Raun's affliction is the catalyst for the drama, it is presented as a portrait in courage on the part of the parents, who refuse to listen to the doomsaying of psychologist and social workers and who work for hours and hours to bring their child out of his imprisonment. Even more unfortunately, this testimonial to the parents' perseverance is their own work; the father, Barry Neil Kaufman, wrote the book and shares screenwriting credit with the mother, Suzi Lyte Kaufman. and Stephen Kandel.
Then there is the specter of the word "miracle" in the title. It's always a risky business to assume that anything science cannot yet explain is by definition metaphysical. "Son-Rise" doesn't offer any expert testimony on the possible reasons for the son's recovery, which was unusual in the annals of psychiatry. This is not a serious drama about the mysteries of the mind; it settles for being merely, if very effectively, a heatwarmer.
What films such as "Son-Rise" can do is demystify a social or psychological disorder, the way ABC's recent "Like Normal People" demystified mental retardation. Such films may be doing an incalculable service by taking these subjects out of the realm of superstition and fear. The trouble with "Son-Rise" is that if falls back on the "miracle" explanation, and, implicity at least, makes the medical and scientific community appear heartless and uncaring.
"I hate them, I really do," says the mother. "They're so cold and unfeeling I just can't stand it." In a sequence shot like a tour through a haunted house, or something out of "The Snake Pit," the couple sneak into a facility for children with mental disorders and see the little patients bound to chairs or locked in boxes. There is even a hysterical cut away from the father opening a door in horrific anticipation; we never see what he saw. Clearly, we are to imagine the worst.
James Farentino, growing less glib with the years, and an attractive acctress named Kathryn Harrold play the parents adequately. The child is played with startling conviction by young Michael Adams and, in some scenes - doubling for him because child labor laws restrict the amount of time young actors can spend on a movie set - Michael's twin brother, Casey. (The boys are the great - grandsons of pioneering film director King Vidor.)
The vacant, disoriented look in the child's eyes is both poignant and chilling. It makes one want to learn more about autism, but the film unfortuunately is more interested in the gospel of uplift according to the Debby Boones of the world. It was commendable to bring up the subject in a film for television, but it is a disservice notject in a film for television, but it is a disservice not to have looked into it more deeply.