Film Review: So B. It

Dysfunctional-family mysteries are unearthed in this delicately rendered but rather pallid adaptation of a novel.
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Based on Sarah Weeks’ acclaimed novel, Stephen Gyllenhaal’s So B. It follows 12-year-old Heidi (Talitha Bateman) on her solo journey of family discovery. The girl lives in Reno, Nevada with her mentally challenged mother (Jessica Collins), for whom she is almost herself a parent, aided by a neighbor, Bernadette (Alfre Woodard), who suffers from agoraphobia. Heidi has always wondered about her father and the date of her exact birthday. Certain clues she discovers around the house further pique her feverish young brain, so she sets forth across America to New York State in search of answers.

Sensitive to a fault, Gyllenhaal’s direction elicits some impressive performances, especially from Bateman, who displays an admirable poise and verve as this most independent-minded of pre-teens. You are fully in her corner as she heads pell-mell into the unknown, with what she finds there often taxing her tender years and sheltered inexperience. Woodard, always reliable, is also wonderful, bringing a very welcome, innate dignity and refulgent warmth to what could easily be dismissed as a “Mammy” role.

For all the family sturm und drang and varying disabilities apparent here, the film is nevertheless a rather placid affair, none too exciting, with a handsome—if kind of Hallmark-card—look to it. Heidi is bent on getting Bernadette to leave her apartment, and when she finally does, that scene is the most riveting in the movie. Woodard really goes for it, conveying with a wildly unbridled physicality the terrifying fear and paralysis of those suffering from this particular illness, jolting the film into momentary messy and teeming life.

In a small role, Cloris Leachman is engaging as an old biddy sitting next to Heidi on the bus, obsessed with cats and Shirley Temple. Collins’ cliched portrayal of madness, all that desperate, incoherent, trapped-bird business, evoking The Snake Pit circa 1948, was probably a mistake, however. The late John Heard also appears near the end as Heidi’s crusty grandpa, bringing some welcome testosterone to the femme-heavy atmosphere here.

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