The premise of "Martian Child" forces you to suspend disbelief: Successful single science fiction writer with an ultra-modern bachelor pad and gorgeous girlfriend decides to adopt a 10-year-old boy who thinks he's a Martian and lives in a cardboard box.
What could possibly make you buy into this far-fetched concept?
Well, there's a solid veteran cast. Sure-bet John Cusack plays David, the science fiction writer who decides it makes perfect sense for a single guy (a widower, actually) who's at the bottom of the list when it comes to desirable adoptive parent material to adopt a special needs kid. Cusack has never played a dad (though he is one in real life), but his knack for portraying insecurity and paranoia ("High Fidelity," "Being John Malkovich") translates well to the role of new parent. Likewise, sister Joan Cusack, appearing on screen for the eighth time with her brother, brings her cheek-puckering (both kinds) uptightness to her role as David's skeptical sister. (She also brings her gift for making an OK line uproariously funny. As her two boys wrestle in the yard with David's aged setter, she yells: "Would you kids get off the dog, he's like 200 years old!" Pause. "Would you do that to grandma?")
Oliver Platt as David's attentive agent, Amanda Peet as David's girl friend (eventually to become one word) and Sophie Okonedo as a children's home director all give strong supporting roles.
Yet this chain of talent is only as strong as its youngest link, and 10-year-old newcomer Bobby Coleman plays one stellar little Dennis the Martian.
From the start, unseen inside his appliance box shell, Dennis is hard to read. He needs the box, he says, because the Earth's intense solar radiation is hard on a Martian dispatched to collect data on the neighbors. Not, as the Earth version of his story goes, because he was abandoned by his parents.
David's offer of sunscreen (45 SPF) and sunglasses are met with a soft "Thank you," and a connection is made. But a connection between two humans or an Earthling and a Martian?
Dennis goes home with David on a trial basis. He maintains the visitor-from-another-planet persona with surprising believability. A series of curious occurrences helps (several of his "Martian wishes" seem to come true). For the most part, though, it's Coleman's ability to keep Dennis a mystery. His purported mission on Earth is by no means elaborate but is certainly believable. Is he stealing things from David and the kids at school, or is he gathering artifacts for the folks back home? Does his emerging compassion indicate he's coming out of his shell of hurt? Or does it mean he's learning and aping the emotional complexities of Earthlings?
Coleman maintains the illusion deep into the movie. He's just a very emotionally damaged little boy, right? He couldn't possibly be from another nah! And yet ... .
And yet, it's not until the very end that his residency is revealed, an illusion that keeps "Martian Child" in orbit largely on Coleman's otherworldly performance.