Mask (1985)

29 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Mask’s” opening scene in which the central, disfigured young character first appears on screen delivers a visceral reaction. With a strange face, he certainly doesn’t look like a normal teenage boy. But as he talks and goes about his day, we realize he is a teenage boy. His name is Rocky Dennis, and he’s just a normal kid with an unfortunate facial abnormality. He collects baseball cards, he has dreams of traveling the world, and there’s no reason as to why he shouldn’t attend public school like other kids his age.

Rocky’s face resembles that of a lion, as his disease is sometimes known as “Lion-itis.” It’s called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, and it causes calcium on his skull to distort the face. People see him, and keep staring in disbelief, to which he likes to ask, “What’s the matter? You never seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before?” But just because he looks different doesn’t mean he’s any less special. He’s a good kid; just see the good in him. That’s why we accept Rocky almost immediately after we’ve seen what he looks like. And right away, you see the point “Mask” makes—don’t judge people by how they look.

Rocky does encounter people who judge too quickly. In an early scene, his mother, Rusty (Cher), registers Rocky at a new school district and sees the school principal who takes one look at the boy and suggests “special schools” that fit his “needs.” “Do you teach algebra, biology, and English here?” “Of course,” the principal responds reluctantly. “Those are his needs,” Rusty says with a grin. She shows him the report card from Rocky’s last school, which shows he’s a good student, and she practically calls him a jerk before giving the name of her “lawyer.” (She doesn’t really have one, but who doesn’t cringe at that word?)

That’s just less than 10 minutes into “Mask” and we’re already absorbed into the material. Right at that scene, you can see that Rusty is the ideal mom for Rocky. But that’s not to say she’s normal; far from it. She rides with a motorcycle gang, heavily takes drugs, brings strange men home with her night after night, and I wouldn’t guess she’s employed. She’s a free-spirited, wild, complicated, angry-at-the-world woman who does love her son, even if he sometimes gets on her nerves as he tries to get her to stop taking drugs. But she will if it will make him happy, or at least she’ll try. This is an outstanding character study, and Cher turns in an excellent performance as Rusty, bringing further effectiveness to an already well-written role.

Eric Stoltz, buried under a very convincing latex mask, does a terrific job at making Rocky into a normal teenager with a handicap, and not some special case like the Elephant Man. He’s very likeable and convincing, and we accept him as Rocky Dennis.

“Mask,” directed by Peter Bogdanovich and written by Anna Hamilton Phelan, shows us almost a year in the life of these characters. We spend time with them and get into their relationships—the relationship with Rocky and Rusty, the relationships they have with the motorcycle gang who acts as surrogate fathers to Rocky, the relationship between Rusty and her old lover Gar (Sam Elliott) whom she really loves, and also there’s even a sweet romance between Rocky and a cute blind girl (Laura Dern) who feels Rocky’s face and says, “You look all right to me.” (And unfortunately, wouldn’t you know it, her parents see his face and that’s all they notice of him.)

All of these make “Mask” into a unique, wonderful movie full of high spirits and good intentions, but never to a point where this could have been a stale Disease-of-the-Week TV movie. It’s smartly written, nicely-executed, and we like and care for the characters. The point of “Mask” is delivered effectively—looks don’t matter. Anyone who accepts Rocky right away at the beginning of the movie is most likely to apply that lesson to life.

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