The spirit of Robert Aldrich is alive and well in Harry Bromley-Davenport’s “Mockingbird Don’t Sing,” a sensationalized screen treatment of the headline-grabbing “Genie” case of 1970, in which a 12-year-old Los Angeles girl, chained to an infant’s potty chair since birth by her parents, was finally released from her captivity. Very much in the shadow of Werner Herzog’s “Kaspar Hauser” and Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” both of which dealt with so-called “feral children,” but minus those pics’ sensitivity and social commentary, “Mockingbird” drags fascinating source material through the mud. This is one bird that looks to do most of its singing on the small screen.
Sticking fairly close to the real course of events (previously documented in several nonfiction books and an episode of the PBS “Nova” series), but with character names changed, pic opens on a sunny November afternoon, circa 1970. For reasons unknown, on this day the near-blind mother (Kim Darby) of the horribly abused Katie (newcomer Tarra Steele), frees her daughter from the cell-like room that has been her prison for the first 12 years of her life.
Together, they escape to a child services office, where Katie is immediately stripped from her mother’s care and put under the watchful eye of a team of child psychologists and welfare workers. Katie cannot speak and can barely walk. She has never had contact with any human beings other than her immediate family.
Katie’s father (Jack Betts) kills himself before he can take the stand at the abuse trial, and Katie’s mother is acquitted because, in the eyes of the law, she was a victim, too. In the meantime, Katie becomes a cause celebre: She is poked and prodded by an arsenal of researchers and scientists.
Rather than focusing on the psychological and human rights issues at the heart of this story, “Mockingbird Don’t Sing” charts a more conventional, “Shine”-like odyssey, as Katie gradually emerges from her mute shell under the guidance of a kindly linguistics student (sensitively played by stage vet Melissa Errico, currently on Broadway in “Amour”) and child psychologist (Joe Regalbuto). Sean Young (made up with gobs of blue eye shadow in what seems a bid for latter-day Joan Crawford status) as a rival psychologist and a series of foster parents serve as the villains.
In the case that inspired the film, a slew of lawsuits charged that Genie (as the real subject was referred to in public documents) was “over tested” by zealous doctors seeking to prove various hypotheses about human development. But Bromley-Davenport and screenwriter, Daryl Haney, never seem as drawn to the compelling human elements of this story as they are to its one-dimensional surface shocks. “Mockingbird Don’t Sing” lingers on Katie’s fixations with masturbation and menstruation, her inability to chew solid food and throws in some overwrought flashbacks to the Norman Bates-like relationship between Katie’s father and grandmother.
Thankfully, the marvelous Kim Darby turns what could easily have been just another mother-monster character into a much richer and more complex character, particularly in pic’s second half, when Katie is briefly returned to her mother’s care. And, in the demanding Katie role, newcomer Tarra Steele gives one of the all-time great performances by a child actor. Steele’s every instinct, every gesture and expression spring organically from her being.Tech contributions are top-notch, with particularly evocative work by production designer John Larena and costumer Carin Berger creating a convincing 1970s milieu.