This is a remarkable motion picture. Its subject, mental retardation, is one that most of us avoid as much as possible. But it's a fact of life for millions--those diagnosed with it, their families and friends, and the people who work with them. If they have the courage to face up to it every day, we should at least have the nerve to do something as easy as watch a film. It turns out to be a much more rewarding experience than many might expect.
Judy Garland plays Jean Hansen, an over-thirty woman "drifting" through her life. To give it some purpose, she applies for work at an institution for mentally retarded children, though she has no expertise in the field. Dr. Clark (Burt Lancaster), who runs the place, has doubts about her altruism, but gives her a chance. Miss Hansen soon becomes attached to one young boy in particular--too attached for Dr. Clark's liking. He's a proponent of a modified "tough love" approach, one that calls for the students to do whatever they can for themselves to the best of their abilities.
Unlike the popular style of today, the children aren't played by actors who try to imbue their characters with a Forrest Gump-like "wisdom." They are real children who play themselves and in doing so bring a power to this film that a cast of the world's greatest actors couldn't hope to equal. At the movie's conclusion the students are seen performing a Thanksgiving play before an assembly and the effect on the viewer is staggering. We like to think that in our present-day society we deal much more openly with subjects that were taboo in the past, but no one else to my knowledge has had the courage to take such an unflinching look at mental retardation as this 1963 film does. For that we can thank producer Stanley Kramer for bringing it to the screen and to director John Cassavetes for making it tangible. I can't imagine that there is anyone who wouldn't benefit from watching this movie. I also can't recommend it strongly enough.
Psychologist Dr. Matthew Clark is the head of the Crawthorne State Training Institute, one of the first boarding schools for developmentally challenged children. Dr. Clark is sympathetic but demanding of his teachers and students. His approach of tough love is controversial. He takes a chance at hiring former aspiring concert pianist Jean Hansen as the school's music teacher, Miss Hansen who has no background in nursing, teaching or dealing with the developmentally challenged. She herself is trying to find her own place in life. She immediately bonds with autistic student Reuben Widdicombe, who she sees as needing special attention in light of his parents having not visited him since they enrolled him in the school two years earlier. The Widdicombes divorced shortly thereafter because of the pressures their relationship faced in dealing with Reuben. Dr. Clark sees Reuben as the type of child the most difficult with which to deal: Reuben understands just enough to realize that he is different and is often being rejected. Miss Hansen and Dr. Clark disagree on how best to get through to Reuben. Although Dr. Clark admits that his methods have not worked with Reuben, he also does not believe that Miss Hansen's approach of undivided attention is the answer. Through getting to know the Widdicombe's reasons for not visiting and she herself seeing the life of the adult disabled, Miss Hansen comes to an understanding of how she feels she can best help her students, Reuben included.
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