Mel Gibson does himself proud with the imperfect but noble, and ultimately satisfying "Man Without a Face," marking the superstar's first directing effort.
In addition to directing, Gibson has the title role in this allegory on alienation, playing a burn victim whose face is scarred and whose demeanor is mysterious.Most of the way, the story covers familiar territory, with Gibson's character reluctantly befriending a young boy who has identity problems of his own, as they battle and ultimately learn from each other.
What is less predictable is a twist toward the end with Gibson's character being falsely accused of despicable behavior, which doubles back on the central theme of intolerance.
The focus here is on young Chuck (Nick Stahl), a pre-teen product of a broken home, whose mother (Margaret Whitton) is on the prowl for her fourth husband and whose two half-sisters (each from separate marriages) are driving him crazy.
To get away, Chuck desperately wants to get away to a private military school - the same one his late father attended. But he's failed the entrance exam once and has only one more chance.
So, when fate brings Chuck together with the reclusive Justin McLeod (Gibson), who has lived in seclusion for seven years in his seaside home, the boy takes advantage of McLeod's past as a teacher and seeks personal tutoring. They begin an adversarial relationship that grows into genuine friendship, and continues through the summer - though Chuck is afraid to tell his mother or friends that he is spending his days with the town "freak."
The setting here is small-town Maine in 1968, though the period is not very well-defined until about halfway through the film. In many ways, it feels contemporary - and perhaps that is by design.
The supporting players include several familiar faces (Whitton, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Maser, young Gaby Hoffmann), who are all quite good. And Gibson is also excellent. Fortunately, young Stahl is up to the task of keeping pace and joins the array of fine children's performances that have highlighted the summer.
As a director, Gibson gives too much weight to the nasty side of his female characters, as Chuck's sisters and mother are far more unsympathetic than they need be. And he occasionally allows some of his small-town sideline characters to drift into stereotypes. Canadian screenwriter Malcolm MacRury, with his first big-screen production, should perhaps take some of the blame for this, as well as the overly sentimental edge that permeates the entire work.
But much of the way, Gibson and MacRury allow us empathy for the plight of the film's lead characters, so that these cinematic infractions are forgivable.
"The Man Without a Face" is rated PG-13 for profanity and some vulgar remarks, along with brief sex and marijuana smoking.