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Film review: Losing Isaiah

Published: Tuesday, March 21 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

"Losing Isaiah" could be a TV social-issue-of-the-week movie were it not for the high-power, big-screen cast, headed by Jessica Lange as a longtime social worker who falls in love with a little crack baby that has been abandoned at a trash Dumpster.

After the infant is brought into the hospital during her shift, Lange talks her husband (David Strathairn) into agreeing to adopt the child, so they can add him to their family (they also have an obnoxious teenage daughter).

The twist here is that the child is black and Lange and Strathairn are white. So, when the child's mother (Halle Berry), a reformed drug addict, shows up five years later and reveals that she never signed away her parental rights, her fight to regain custody becomes a race issue.

Director Stephen Gyllenhaal ("Leap of Faith," "A Dangerous Woman") and his wife, producer/screenwriter Naomi Foner ("Running on Empty," "A Dangerous Woman") should be credited with their noble effort to tell this story from both Lange and Berry's points of view. But it's a balancing act that doesn't come together.

The narrative is too fragmented and the film's point of view shifts for stretches that are too lengthy - initially it feels like Berry's story, then for a long period it's Lange's, then it's Berry's again. Editing may be the big problem.

And the feel-good climax feels like a cop-out. (There are other weak script elements and characters who seem too noble, particularly an intrusive, tentative romance provided for Berry by Cuba Gooding Jr.)

But the performances are all excellent, with special kudos to Berry, Samuel L. Jackson as her no-nonsense attorney and Jackson's real-life wife, La Tanya Richardson, as Lange's attorney. And also to young Marc John Jeffries, the charming 4-year-old who plays Isaiah for most of the movie.

"Losing Isaiah" is rated R but could have been a PG-13 with a little less profanity. There is also graphic needle-in-the-arm drug abuse in the film's early moments, and a distressing sequence when the baby is left at the Dumpster.