The emotional power of the issue of child neglect makes up for lackluster performances and predictable retelling of the story of “Gregory K,” based on the 12-year-old who sued to terminate his parents’ rights so that he could be adopted by foster parents.
As the story relates, caring for three sons is too much for the alcoholic, transient Ralph Kingsley (Robert Joy), so Zach (Brian Cook) and Jeremiah (Daniel DeSanto) are returned to their mother, Rachel (Kathleen York), while Gregory (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) remains with dad.
Gregory is rescued by hismother when he ends up in a hospital after his father’s beating, but the boy’s hopes for a better life are soon dashed by mom’s alcoholism and irresponsibility.
When the social services agency spots the boys’ neglect, they’re sent to foster homes and Gregory ends up at a Youth Ranch for neglected children.
He is rescued by George Russ (Bill Smitrovich) and his wife, Lizabeth (Kristin Griffith), who want to adopt him; however, his natural parents oppose the move, which sets off the legal battle that was widely viewed on the national news.
The pathos of Gregory’s plight carries this movie a long way, but it’s offset by awkward emotional transitions in the characters and story. While it is true that many children who are badly neglected fall into the best-little-boy role that Gregory pursues, most of them also show signs of depression, withdrawal or anti-social behavior that are rarely shown in this character.
Much is made of the fact that Gregory is forced to grow up quickly, but through much of the movie the boy handles his adversity with the maturity of a 40-year-old, and with few apparent emotional consequences. This strains credulity, even for a fact-based drama.
Gordon-Levitt shows skill as Gregory, but has not been given the opportunity to demonstrate much range by director Linda Otto or writer Sharon Elizabeth Doyle. Little of Gregory is revealed beyond his desperate plight, and the story never comes close to showing the hopes and even joys that have been crushed by parental neglect.
The other actors also give tightly reined performances, and the characters are presented chiefly as types. York manages to find several real moments and Joyce Reehling is stunning as the wise, no-nonsense attorney who takes on Gregory’s difficult case.