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Film Review: ‘The Dark Matter of Love’

Sarah McCarthy's absorbing documentary focuses on a Middle American couple's adoption of three Russian children.

With:

Claudio Diaz, Cheryl Diaz, Cami Diaz, Masha Diaz, Marcel Diaz, Vadim Diaz, Robert Marvin.

Documaker Sarah McCarthy (“The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical”) offers an arresting and often compelling mix of intimate cinema verite and psycho-anthropological study in “The Dark Matter of Love,” her account of a Middle American couple’s efforts to bond with three adopted Russian orphans. For better or worse, the pic could draw a larger-than-expected audience in limited theatrical and nonprofit bookings due to its unfortunate timeliness following Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent ban on such adoptions by U.S. families. Down the road, the doc likely will have a long shelf life as a teaching tool by adoption agencies.

Claudio and Cheryl Diaz are introduced as chipper early-fortysomethings who reside in a Wisconsin suburb with Cami, their teenage daughter, and yearn to expand their family. At first, it appears their dreams have come true when they’re able to fly to Russia to adopt three children: Marcel and Vadim, two rambunctious 5-year-old twin brothers, and Masha, an unrelated 11-year-old girl who’s appreciably more withdrawn.

Trouble is, dreams have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares.

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Early on, it’s clear all three of the Russian youngsters — heretofore accustomed to fending for themselves in government institutions — will present discipline problems for which Claudio and Cheryl, despite their good intentions, are ill-prepared.

It doesn’t help much that the language barrier seriously impedes the adoptive parents’ attempt to communicate commands and/or criticism. (Of course, judging from what the English subtitles indicate, it’s probably for the best that Claudio doesn’t understand Marcel and Vadim’s more profane backtalk.) And it helps even less that Cami, while initially supportive of the family expansion, comes to resent what she sees as Masha’s passive-aggressive demands for attention.

Fortunately for all parties, McCarthy and her production crew aren’t the only ones observing this family dynamic. Dr. Robert Marvin, a noted child psychologist with a background in attachment-parenting therapy, serves as a key supporting player in the real-life drama, periodically reviewing video of the parent-child interactions and offering practical advice about forging family ties.

Just as important, Marvin and his assistants enable Claudio and Cheryl to confront their deep-rooted fears of repeating mistakes made by their own parents.

Here and there in “The Dark Matter of Love,” McCarthy draws upon archival material to chart the development of scientific theories — some beneficial, others not — regarding parent-child bonding. (One especially unsettling instructional film actually makes a case for withholding affection for a child’s own good.)

For the most part, however, the documentary focuses on the particulars of a specific situation, and is all the more absorbing for doing so. Indeed, on technical and emotional levels, “The Dark Matter of Love” inspires boundless admiration for the skill, discipline and empathetic tact of McCarthy and her crew.

Film Review: 'The Dark Matter of Love'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 7, 2013 Running time: 93 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary — U.K.) A Double Bounce Films production in association with Met Film, Front Row Partners, VPRO and the Wellcome Trust. (International sales: Roco Films, Sausalito, Calif.) Produced by Sarah McCarthy, Grace Hughes-Hallett. Executive producers, Jonny Persey, Chris Wingader, Al Morrow, Gordon Grender, Remy Blumenfeld, Rob Tucker.

Crew:

Directed by Sarah McCarthy. Camera (color, B&W), Liam Iandoli; editor, John Mister; music, Molly Nyman; sound, Danton Tanimura.

With:

Claudio Diaz, Cheryl Diaz, Cami Diaz, Masha Diaz, Marcel Diaz, Vadim Diaz, Robert Marvin.

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