Thanks to a strong script by Steve Lawson and Dalene Young and subtle direction by George Kaczender, the telefilm avoids both speechifying and sentimentality. As a result, it has considerable emotional impact.
The title character is Jonathan Willis (Chris Burke), who has Down’s syndrome. His parents cannot or will not deal emotionally with his condition, so they ship him to a home where he receives minimal care.
Luckily, Ginny Moore (JoBeth Williams), a volunteer at the facility, suspects that Jonathan is a lot smarter than his parents believe. With her love and help, he quickly proves her correct.
The two get more and more attached, so much so that Ginny’s husband and two teenage children get apprehensive about their closeness. But they eventually grow to love the youngster, too.
Jonathan’s parents remain aloof, but when they realize their role as parents is being usurped, they forbid the Moore family to have any contact with their son. They also refuse to authorize a heart operation for Jonathan, even though doctors say he will not live past 30 without it.
Wanting to be able to do what is in the boy’s best interest, the Moores ultimately take the Willises to court. The various points of view on the guardianship issue are articulated fully; the viewer is made to feel empathy for everyone involved.
But the movie clearly takes sides. Ginny asks at one point, “What is a family , anyway?”; the movie argues convincingly that the answer to that question has more to do with love and caring than with chromosomes.
The script does stumble at times. A reconciliation between Ginny’s husband and son is handled with an annoying lack of subtlety and Willis’ hesitance to give his son the operation is never fully explained.
But the characters are well-drawn for the most part and the actors are excellent. The performance of Burke of “Life Goes On,” an actor who has Down’s syndrome, has depth. Williams is fine as the somewhat underdefined Ginny and Jeff DeMunn has some wonderful moments as her husband.