The Stone Boy (1984)

8 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I am of two minds about Christopher Cain’s family drama “The Stone Boy.” On the one hand, it is somewhat slow and not without unnecessary scenes (and one particularly unneeded subplot). But on the other hand, it is a poignant, well-acted film that provides an effective portrait of grief after death and how a family is able or sometimes unable to cope with the situation. The more I keep thinking about the latter half of my mind to come up with a clear verdict for this review, the more I am won over by how well it works as a drama—enough so that I can give it a solid recommendation.

When you feel overwhelmed with grief and despair, you seek understanding and comfort from those closest to you. But when your own family and friends can’t seem to help you feel better, what else can you do but turn to people you don’t know very well, thinking they’ll be able to help? It’s a sad, morbid thing to think about—that those closest to you can’t seem to help you in your time of need. But I suppose when you hear what you want to hear from anyone who will listen, that’s at least something to feel good about. In “The Stone Boy,” a young boy, named Arnold (Jason Presson), is somewhat responsible for the death of his older brother, Eugene. He and Eugene got up early one morning to pick peas in a patch near their family’s farm; Arnold brought a shotgun to shoot some ducks, but it got caught in a barbed wire fence as Eugene tries to help Arnold free it, only for the gun to accidentally go off, killing Eugene.

It wasn’t Arnold’s fault, but his reaction to it confuses his family in a scary way. You see, after the accident, Arnold stayed with the body for a long time in shock (maybe the gravity of what just happened is too much for him, or maybe he thinks he’s having a bad dream and he’ll wake up anytime). How long he stayed out there with the body of his dead brother is never specified, but after this, he goes on to pick peas and put them in a pail, and bring them home, where his family is waiting for him. “Eugene’s dead,” Arnold uncomfortably says.

Arnold’s father, Joe Hillerman (Robert Duvall), keeps his feelings bottled up inside and can’t even bring himself to comfort Arnold. He advises his wife, Ruth (Glenn Close), to leave him alone, believing that “maybe he’ll realize what he’s done” if he’s left alone. Arnold’s older sister, Nora (Susan Blackstone), doesn’t know how to feel toward him. So basically, the family is assuming that Arnold will handle his grief on his own. The only one that will listen and who understands Arnold’s mental scars and confusion about what has happened is his kind grandfather George (Wilford Brimley). He and Arnold share many times together, and Arnold feels more at home with his grandfather than with his parents and sister.

To be sure, Joe and Ruth are not cruel people, and they know that they should be more attentive toward Arnold and give him the comfort he needs, instead of using him as an excuse feel sorry for themselves after this tragedy. But when they think about their late oldest son and Arnold being somewhat involved in his tragic death, they can’t seem to comfort themselves, let alone their guilt-stricken surviving son.

Meanwhile, there’s Uncle Andy (Frederic Forrest), who understands how sorrow and guilt feels…although nevertheless, he’s a lout who can’t seem to control himself. This becomes apparent when he seduces Eugene’s distressed girlfriend (Cindy Fisher), even though he is married. And it’s also apparent that this isn’t the first time he’s cheated on his pregnant wife Lu (Gail Youngs), as the next day she suspects something going on and hysterically talks with Ruth about it. She blames Arnold for all of this, even smacking him about three times in anger. Lu is fed up with her husband, as she packs up and leaves for Reno, Nevada to start a new life.

Now, I grant you that “The Stone Boy” might have been a little better if this subplot was trimmed or cleaned up a bit, because the whole thing with the Forrest character slows down the film’s pacing. I could have used less of his actions and more of how the family is attempting to cope with this tragedy, because there is already something deep and credible here. However, I feel the need to accept in some way, mainly because it is the reason for more grief that traces back to the tragedy. It delivers more to think about, particularly when Lu blames Arnold for causing some sort of trouble that led to Andy cheating on her with Eugene’s girlfriend. Lu’s story is actually pretty interesting, as she herself feels guilt and grief for certain things about her life, hence why she runs away to start a new life. Eventually, she is able to accept Arnold’s apology for what she thought he did to her; but she can’t give him much more than that because she remains a mess. Will she change? Who knows? But the movie isn’t about that. It’s about how everything can and should lead to reconciliation among this family.

“The Stone Boy” is very well-made. You get a sense of the South on this small Montana farm, but more importantly, you can actually feel what these characters are going through—particularly in that scene midway though the movie in which Lu takes out her anger on Arnold; you can get a clear sense of her anger there, and you feel sorry for the kid who is being treated this way. That’s not an easy task for a drama, for us to feel something for both sides of two certain characters that you can sympathize and empathize. And the film is aided by a great cast. Jason Presson is effective and sympathetic as the boy who is indeed treated as if he’s made of stone. Wilford Brimley is great as always, playing a kindly confidant—the kind of grandfather we’d all like to have. Robert Duvall and Glenn Close are solid, and are well-suited for admittedly difficult roles. And Gail Youngs is very good as Lu. Also good is Linda Hamilton in a small role near the end, as a young mother with a baby—she meets Arnold on a bus, and she gives him the kind of absolution and understanding that the kid needed for so long.

“The Stone Boy” does move at a somewhat-slow pace and there are a few moments that seem to drag when we just want to move back to something more interesting. However, its central themes about not knowing how to open up about a loss and what needs to be said and done in order to make yourself or someone close to you feel better about themselves make up for those parts, and provide enough satisfying, compelling dramatic moments that are strong enough to make an impact. You feel for these characters and hope that things turn out well for them. And that is one of the main reasons that “The Stone Boy” works.

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One Response to “The Stone Boy (1984)”

  1. jeannie stone July 8, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    I must see this movie because of the intensity of your witness, Tanner.

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