Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Adoption Movie Guide: Martian Child

Happy Foster Care Month. We'll kick off the month with one of the best cinematic depictions of foster care that you'll find. Also - this marks the 100th post on Adoption at the Movies. Thanks for being here.

 David Gordon is a widowed science-fiction author. He and his wife Mary were pursuing adoption together until her death two years ago, motivated in part because Mary had been adopted. David has now decided to resume his pursuit of adoption. He is matched with Dennis, a ten-or-so year-old boy who lives at a group home. Dennis’ behaviors are peculiar. When David first encounters him, Dennis is hidden inside an Amazon shipping carton in an effort to escape the sun’s rays. David and Dennis are matched. David continues to learn about Dennis and comes to understand the worries that underlie Dennis’ peculiar behaviors. Dennis has been abandoned before, and David has to continually prove that he will not abandon Dennis.

How is This Relevant to Adoption?
This film is a picture of foster care adoption going right. Dennis is around ten years old, and is actively waiting for an adoptive family. He lives at a group home, and has largely isolated himself from staff and residents. He is ultimately adopted by a single man, who pursues the adoption in spite of raised eyebrows from social workers and his own family, who doubt that a single man can successfully adopt a child. But David does it; he sticks with Dennis through a very trying adjustment, and he and Dennis become a family.

Strong Points
Martian Child is honest. It offers an honest portrayal of David’s own self-questioning. He wonders whether he is qualified to be a parent. Another character affirms him, saying that “just the fact that you’re asking whether you’re qualified proves you’re qualified.” Dennis expresses some jealousy towards David’s deceased wife, because Dennis wants David to love him. He steals David’s pictures of his wife. He takes others of David’s belongings. When David becomes angry at Dennis, Dennis’ first question is, “Was I bad? You’re going to send me away because I broke your stuff?” And David responds beautifully, “There’s nothing you could do that would change the way I feel. I’m not going to ever send you away.”

David’s motives are strong. A question is raised – how happy would his deceased wife be, if she knew he was adopting. And the movie affirms that that isn’t a good enough reason to adopt.

David makes a powerful case for foster care adoption, “I get the arguments against [parenthood and adoption] – even the one about not bringing another kid into the world. But how do you argue with the logic of loving a kid that’s already here?”

David is a good parent. He expresses the need to “find the balance between socializing [Dennis] and letting him be who he is.” I loved that. He connects with Dennis and enters Dennis’ world and narrative. We’re shown that Dennis’ peculiar behaviors actually have a reason.  David perseveres through Dennis’ behaviors – running away, stealing small items – and sees the needs underlying Dennis’ behaviors rather than just correcting him. Dennis wisely explains that he is watching David and “learning how to be a human in part of a family.”
There is a powerful conversation at the end of the film. David expresses, “I want to prove that not all parents disappear.” Dennis asks, “Why do they go sometimes?” and David explains, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery. Sometimes it’s their fault and sometimes it’s not.” And then Dennis asks the big question, “Why do you think they left me?” David’s response is powerful, “Because they were stupid. Whoever let you go, those were the stupidest beings in the universe. You’re extraordinary, big-hearted, the easiest kid in the world to love. I think you love me, too. Dennis, you’re my son. Your my own, forever, and I will never leave you.”

There are some scenes with trigger potential. Some children say things about Dennis that could be hurtful to some viewers – that he’s a weirdo that doesn’t have any friends, and that David doesn’t want Dennis because Mary died. Adults say things that could be hurtful or confusing to young viewers – David’s sister wonders if Dennis is showing “red flags.” One character wonders if David can “return” Dennis, and a question is also raised over whether single parents can actually function as parents. In the end, everything turns out right, but the scenes could be difficult for some viewers. Dennis speaks about having “another mommy and daddy,” but then Dennis “floated away.” This could be powerful or traumatic for a child who connects with it.
Some aspects of the film aren’t quite accurate or clinically helpful. Dennis was placed with David far more quickly than would happen in real life. The lead social worker on the case is quite a bit intimidating. David suggests that Dennis has “seen a lot of doctors [but] that’s not what he needs.” Some kids are probably medicated when they don’t need to be, but medication is very helpful for others. Medication isn’t always the answer, but it is sometimes an answer. David tries to lay down “rules of the house” on Dennis’ first morning in the home, but falls a bit flat, opening with, “There aren’t any rules.”
We don’t know the story of Dennis’ past. It seems like he was abandoned. Many children in foster care were not abandoned. Many first parents were unable to successfully care for their child in spite of fervent wishes to be able to do so. Dennis’ abandonment could feed into a stereotypical but false assumption about birth parents in the foster care system. On the other hand, many children do feel abandoned by foster parents who have them removed from their homes.  
Weak Points
Dennis is brought into a board room, where he is simultaneously interviewed by several adults. Maybe this is normal procedure for foster care in some parts of the world, but I’ve never encountered it.
He accuses David of “Adoptive Parent Syndrome” – which he describes as being “so eager to be a friend that you forget to be a parent.” However – that’s not an actual syndrome, and his evaluation of David is quite incorrect.
David has doubts about whether he can parent Dennis successfully. This isn’t unrealistic, but David makes the mistake of expressing them to Dennis, saying, “You’re just a little boy. Maybe I can’t help you. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” Dennis runs away soon afterward.

Martian Child is a very powerful film. It does show David as a very real person with failures, weaknesses, successes and strengths as he does a mostly-good job of parenting Dennis. It’s honest and still touching. People thinking about adoption could be encouraged to look at foster care adoption. Foster parents will be affirmed and encouraged by David’s good example.  Kids watching the film could be helped by the picture of a steadfastly loving father, but could also be challenged by some of the abandonment issues that Dennis has experienced. Watch this one, and then think about watching it again with your kids.

Questions for Discussion After the Film
For kids:

Have you ever felt abandoned like Dennis felt?

When David yelled at Dennis, how did Dennis feel? How did it get better? Has there ever been a time when you felt like Dennis felt, but then got better?

Why was David’s dog so important to Dennis?

What was the most important thing that David told Dennis?

For adults:

Which of your kids’ behaviors make you scratch your head? Which have you already figured out?

Does your child know, without question, that you will never send them away?

Do you think Dennis will thrive in David’s home, once he is confident of permanency?  Will he thrive before he is confident of permanency?

How do you feel about David’s attempt to find a balance “between socializing him and letting him be who he is?”

If you found this helpful, you might also like these other Adoption Movie Guides:


  1. Love this movie. Have you all seen/recommended Free Willy?

    1. Hi Rachael! I saw Free Willy back when I was a kid, but I don't really remember anything about it - what's your take on it?

  2. I really would add that the book is WAY better done than the movie (probably because it's actually written by the guy who experienced being an adoptive parent). I loved the movie but after reading the book I really felt like they repainted both David and Dennis to make them more attractive to the general public and in doing so weren't genuine to their true story.

    In the movie, David is painted as this clueless but well meaning guy who sort of stumbles through the process of adopting and bonding with Dennis but in the book he goes through years of preparation for this kid. And like you said they don't just suddenly put Dennis in his care, it takes a lot of meetings before he's living with David. And the thing is, his preparedness is a reflection of his love for Dennis because he does his research BECAUSE he wants to be a good dad to him.

    Also Dennis is really different too and a big part of why I didn't like the movie as much after reading the book is it really felt like they were just trying to make him seem more manageable for the viewers. They aged him down from 8 to 6 and took away the fact that he actually does have medications that he takes for ADHD and they erase a lot of the "louder" behaviors he has like fighting other kids and long tantrums. I'm not saying that there aren't going to be kids who are like the Dennis in the movie... but the way the movie was put together to me it ends up coming across like they just thought Dennis in the book wouldn't be endearing enough for the general public. And it made me kind of mad because the Dennis in the book is an amazing kid.

    1. Hi TJ. Thanks for this insight. I haven't read the book - but it sounds awesome, and I see why you'd be displeased with the changes to the film. Thank you!


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