The material is emotionally wrenching, but the actors play sociopolitical totems more than flesh-and-blood characters in “Losing Isaiah.” The question of custody battles between birth and adoptive parents is a timely one, and when the race card is played on top of it, result can’t help but be convulsive and provocative. Audiences will assuredly get worked up by this grimly serious, issue-oriented drama, with reactions stemming more from individuals’ own ethnic stripes and political predispositions than from any argument the film presents. Consequential controversy will turn off as many prospective viewers as it will attract, and men and younger patrons will be resistant, pointing to mid-level B.O.
The dilemma raised by Naomi Foner’s script, one that simply cannot resolve satisfactorily for all parties involved, forces a weighing of the rights of a young, single, formerly crack-addicted black woman who tossed her infant son in the garbage, against the claims to the child of a liberal, well-off, conscientious white couple who have adopted, loved and raised him for several years. The title — as well as recent, hotly contested court decisions in this arena — basically tips off the outcome, even if the filmmakers have worked out a way to end things on a sort-of feel-good note.
With director Stephen Gyllenhaal almost hysterically overusing the camera crane and other visual hypos, the tragic scenario is played out of Chicago ghetto fringe dweller Khaila Richards’ (Halle Berry) leaving her little boy in a trash heap in her haste to score another hit of crack. Rescued from the garbage truck, the tot is brought to health by medics and taken home by social worker Margaret Lewin (Jessica Lange), who lives in comfortable digs with hubby Charles (David Strathairn) and awkward-age daughter Hannah (Daisy Eagan).
By the time he’s a toddler, little Isaiah (4-year-old Marc John Jefferies) has been officially adopted, as well as having become unbearably adorable despite his periodic, drug-related screaming fits. Khaila, meanwhile, has gone through rehab, lives in an overcrowded apartment in the projects and has found work as a nanny.
In a highly unlikely-seeming series of fast-happening events, Khaila’s reading teacher announces that she’s found Khaila’s long-lost baby, whereupon the mother quickly tracks down the Lewins and makes brief contact with Isaiah. A lawyer, Kadar Lewis (Samuel L. Jackson), who specializes in making capital of race issues, tells Khaila she has a good case for asserting her maternal rights, and the battle is on.
Funded by anonymous benefactors who subscribe to the lawyer’s edict that “black babies belong with black mothers,” Khaila is given spiffy new clothes and an apartment of her own, and she begins attending church, all to improve her chances of impressing the judge.
Court proceedings, which begin an hour in, see the Lewins, who are repped by a black woman attorney, put through hell. By incessantly harping on race, Lewis may gain the inside track but, as Margaret points out, he manages never to bring such considerations as love and Isaiah’s well-being into the equation.
In airing this contentious issue, pic never brings up the arguable advantage of a two-parent family unit over a single mother, although it lamely tries to address the question of Khaila’s romantic future by introducing a puppy-dog character of an infatuated man (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who follows her around practically begging for a date, implication being that he’ll always be there when she’s ready for him.
Despite its Problem Picture format and lack of character depth (script reveals only near the end that Khaila was a foster child herself), film manages to pack a punch due to its subject and many intense scenes of emotional anguish. Lange’s part basically calls upon her to be a confident and capable professional mom in the first part and a distraught basket case in the second, but she makes Margaret’s despair, and the sense of unfairness she perceives, strongly felt.
Although the character should have been far more detailed in the writing to remove her from archetype and provide more understanding of her rash actions and great stretch toward responsibility, Berry brings vibrancy, wariness and determination to Khaila, making her credible, if not terribly sympathetic. The two women are kept apart until a chance encounter in the court bathroom results in some crackling fireworks. Little Jefferies is a delight as Isaiah.
By contrast, the adult male roles are poorly drawn. Excellent in somewhat edgy, off-center characterizations, Strathairn should stay away from bland supportive husband parts like this one, which make him seem weak. Gooding’s cornball suitor seems like he’d get eaten alive by Khaila if she ever let him get near her, while Jackson’s one-dimensional lawyer is a disagreeable apparatchik of political correctness.
Director Gyllenhaal’s attention never strays from the gut-wrenching aspects of the story, never pulling back a bit to place it in a larger context or questioning the way in which society currently chooses to deal with the problem. Behind-the-scenes contributions are top-drawer, notably Jeannine C. Oppewall’s attentive production design, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s lensing and Mark Isham’s score.