The Cider House Rules (review)

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Boy Meets World

Tobey Maguire is rapidly becoming one of my favorite young actors. His remarkably expressive face has done him great service so far with his characters, who’ve tended to be naïve boys who get their eyes abruptly and unpleasantly opened, as in Ride with the Devil and Pleasantville. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to make the transition to more adult characters, but I’d lay odds that he’ll do just fine: The Cider House Rules is a step in that direction for him.

Here Maguire is Homer Wells, “a true and everlasting orphan” who never did manage to make that fantasy escape from St. Cloud’s Orphanage, in the welcoming arms of a new set of parents. The year is 1943, but you’d hardly guess that a world war is raging. Set on a rural mountaintop, the orphanage is a haven of caring, a madhouse of mostly happy kids. Director Lasse Hallström cast well: from youngsters like the sickly Fuzzy (Erik Sullivan) and the angelic Hazel (Skye McCole Bartusiak) to embittered and lonely teens like Buster (Kieran Culkin: Home Alone) and Mary Agnes (Paz de la Huerta), there’s not a contemporary-looking kid in the bunch: these ragamuffins look like they just stepped out of an Our Gang short.
Fatherless they may be, but all these children have fatherly love and guidance from their resident doctor, Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine: The Muppet Christmas Carol — his American accent comes and goes, but his performance is warm and generous). And the orphan he’s closest to is Homer, who is not only a surrogate son to Larch but his apprentice as well: despite a lack of formal schooling, Homer has become a fine doctor. They have their differences — Larch will help any woman who comes to him looking for a safe, if illegal, abortion, which Homer, with the conviction of the young, fiercely opposes — but they work well as a team.

Though he doesn’t realize it initially, Homer is restless, and when the opportunity to get away and see a bit of the world presents itself, Homer surprises himself by leaping at it. He doesn’t get too terribly far, ending up on the Maine coast, working as an apple picker and befriending Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron: Mighty Joe Young, Celebrity), but it’s far enough for harsh reality to bump up against the high ideals he could afford to nurture in the protected little sanctuary of St. Cloud’s.

The Cider House Rules — based on the novel by John Irving, which he adapted himself — is sentimental, yes, and just a bit predictable, but never in a way that annoys or detracts from the bittersweetness of Homer’s awakening. And it’s the rare film that is willing to take a stance on so controversial a subject as abortion and be both strongly unambiguous and reflective. Larch’s rails against the hypocrisy of a society that allows women to die of botched abortions, women who die “of secrecy… of ignorance.” The film is unequivocal in recognizing that there are tough choices that women have to make that men never face, and even run from: The boyfriend of one woman who comes to Larch for an abortion, as obviously loving and concerned with her needs as he is, nevertheless gets queasy and runs from the room as Larch performs the procedure. He can escape the hard reality — she can’t.

And yet there’s one quiet moment, perhaps the most contemplative in the film, in which Homer and Candy, walking near the ocean, find a piece of beach glass. She explains to Homer, to whom the ocean is a new experience, how the water smoothes the glass. The beach glass is Homer, of course, but not only is it a metaphor for how the real world wears down the sharp edges of the idealism of our childhood, but also of how beauty can be found in throwaway things, as Homer — an unwanted child who clearly was not aborted — is.

The title of the film refers to a set of ridiculously redundant rules posted for the migrant apple pickers in the orchard where Homer finds work. The pickers — including the always hypnotic Delroy Lindo (Strange Justice, A Life Less Ordinary) as the foreman, and an impressive debut by singer Erykah Badu as his daughter — don’t feel compelled to follow the rules, since they didn’t make them. That, ultimately, is the point The Cider House Rules makes, and the overarching lesson that Homer takes to heart: We each have to make our own rules.

In a film in which Maguire outdoes himself, it’s the moment in which Homer suddenly, sadly realizes that he has to make his own tough decisions that makes me sure he’ll someday be a truly formidable actor. He sits silently with Candy — the two of them have one of those tough decisions to make (and it’s not what you’re thinking it is) — and she is perfectly willing to let the world choose for her. But the emotions that flitter across Homer’s face — from melancholy to resoluteness to resignation — signal that at the moment, he has passed from a childhood that not only allowed him but required him to be at the mercy of the decisions of others, to an adulthood that will not only allow him but will require him — for his own piece of mind — to do his own choosing.

And that’s the kind of subtle, mature acting that’s gonna elevate Maguire to my personal pantheon of Actors Who Can Do No Wrong.

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