MY FLESH AND BLOODNR
Only a curmudgeonly critique of My Flesh and Blood, winner of a Best Directing award at Sundance, would mention the documentary's one-note treatment of selfless motherhood, its utter lack of any subtext, and its often pointless voyeurism. It is, after all, about a woman, Susan Tom, who adopted 11 "challenged" children, from burn victims to legless teens. Who needs subtext, you might ask, when 15-year-old Joe becomes violent after his birth mother tells him she's moving out of state with her fourth husband, or Xenia, the legless teen, starts dating a popular boy at school, or eight-year-old Faith, burned at four months, talks about "getting" an ear? At the risk of being branded a malcontent--is there a point?
Susan Tom reacts to family crises with an indefatigable aplomb; she insists that her adopted children's disabilities do not shield them from the conflicts other children confront growing up, but that their "family" provides the necessary scaffolding for weathering the ritual passages to maturity. No doubt some of the children thrive simply because in Susan they have an advocate, a semblance of parental responsibility, a mother who insists on their "normality." Susan is also often empathic; she creates antidotes for the children's discrete travails by placing herself squarely in their emotional landscape. While that is undoubtedly extraordinary, the filmmaker seems to have entered Susan's life at a point where the cracks are beginning to show and, instead of investigating these, he assiduously ignores them for a far more romantic vision of a reconstituted family.
Jonathan Karsh's portrait of the Toms, shot over one year, aspires to hagiography, right down to the bloody stigmata of 19-year-old Anthony, who suffers from a rare, degenerative skin disease, but it fails to resonate with anything more than the quotidian rhythms of a uniquely dysfunctional family. For starters, Susan is grossly overweight and admits to adopting Anthony out of a narcissistic urge to correct her mistakes with a child who died of the same disease. Then there is Margaret, Susan's 18-year-old daughter and substitute mom, who feels guilty for attempting to fulfill her own emotional needs. Susan is uncharacteristically indifferent, to the point of cruelty, when Margaret begs for her approval of a plan to attend community college. Divorced and 53, Susan decides, while wistfully scanning singles websites, that there isn't any room in her life for a relationship with a man. The children are unquestionably Susan's escape from her own neuroses.
The appeal of My Flesh and Blood (the title is even an allusion to Christ-like martyrdom) is its post-psychological, "I'm okay, you're okay" parable--being neurotic doesn't preclude you from sainthood or heroism. What could be wrong with a woman who raises children no one else wants, who creates a family out of a hodgepodge of different personalities and maladies, even if she does it to fulfill her own emotional void? Isn't that a redefinition, a perfection, of what is inherently flawed? But Karsh misses the complexity that, for instance, Jennifer Dworkin gets in Love & Diane (2003), a story about a former crack-addicted mom who attempts to reassemble her family. Unlike Karsh, Dworkin isn't afraid to explore the dark side of her hero. The result is a far more sublime and cinematic rumination on the nature of family than Karsh's episodic tableau of Susan and her children.