SO B. IT
So B. It is a children's book, though if the film adaptation is close to the book I can now see why it might trouble some adults. We have illegitimacy, disabilities, abandoned children, and essentially unsupervised children. However, So B. It handles these tricky and delicate situations with strong grace, some humor, and the end result is a moving picture with strong performances.
Heidi It (Talitha Bateman) has spent her life in two apartments essentially melded into one. Her mother, who calls herself So B. It (Jessica Collins) is severely autistic, unable to handle loud noises and with an extremely limited vocabulary. They are cared for by Bernadette, better known as Bernie (Alfre Woodard). Bernie has her own issues: she's agoraphobic and has not left those rooms in years.
Things would have remained as they are if not for a broken vacuum cleaner. It's so old that the parts are hard to come by. Neither Bernie or So B. are able to physically go out even after they manage to find a replacement part, with So B. and Heidi's effort to get it ending in disaster. However, as time goes on Heidi is beginning to wonder about a lot of things.
One of them is the word 'soof' which even for So B. is strange. Heidi is no longer satisfied by her origin story of how Bernie of how she saw them next door, with So B. in an extreme state of distraught and how Bernie managed to fashion an entrance between their closet and hers and take care of them. Heidi now wants to find out about her past, her family, how they manage to live.
Through her determined work, Heidi finds a clue from photos she managed to have developed: Liberty, New York. It's a long way from where they are in Reno, but Heidi is determined to get to Liberty when endless calls from Bernie prove fruitless. As it happens, Heidi has an incredible ability to get money out of slot machines, and it looks like Reno isn't particular about letting children dressed as Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's walk around and gamble. Earning enough to take the bus, Heidi makes a cross-country journey, meeting and being aided by a variety of people.
Among those is Alice Wilinsky (Cloris Leachman), on her way to a family reunion. She gives Heidi food and company, even a bit of an alibi on the first leg of the journey, but Alice realizes Heidi is not what she says she is. Eventually, Heidi makes it to Liberty, where she meets stiff resistance in her search by Thurman Hill (John Heard in one of his final performances). Heidi's mere presence fills him with anger, but fortunately for Heidi she finds shelter with childless couple Ruby (Jacinda Barrett), a nurse at Mr. Hill's Hill House for Special Needs Patients, and her husband Roy (Dash Mihok), a cop.
At last, the mystery and truth about Heidi It and her mother So B. It becomes untangled. She learns about her past, about the connection between her and Mr. Hill's autistic son Elliott (Michael Arden), who also speaks the mysterious word 'soof', and those bonds of family: biological and emotional.
Talitha Bateman is simply a revelation as Heidi. If the Academy still doled out Juvenile Academy Awards I'd imagine Bateman would get one, for her performance is simply among the best I've seen, especially by a child. Though she's been working for a few years, So B. It (and as way of explanation, it is Heidi's mother's stumbling of her name, Sophia) should be her calling card. Bateman makes Heidi a girl who yearns for the simple truth and finds herself blocked repeatedly by adults, some well-intentioned, some not. At one point in frustration at again being shunted off she tells the adults that they are making things complicated, and she's right.
Bateman doesn't make Heidi into a cloying cutesy kid nor the know-it-all far about the adults. She makes Heidi into a bright girl who also is afraid, confused, even angry. When she finally allows herself to grieve for her mother it tears into you.
With good direction, good scripts, good guidance and good sense, Talitha Bateman will have a long and prosperous career in the style of an Anna Paquin, Dakota Fanning or Abigail Breslin.
In my world, Alfre Woodard can do no wrong, and So B. It shows that we simply need her to be in more movies. This could have been a throwaway role under another actress which could have become almost comical. Instead, with Woodard as Bernie, she made the character loving but strict and made her agoraphobia the serious issue it is versus falling into a trap into making it comical.
The scene where she attempts to leave the apartment and metaphorically ends up 'drowning' is so well-acted even if in the end it's not the end-result one would have liked to have seen.
Director Stephen Gyllenhaal got wonderful performances even from the smallest roles. Seeing the late Heard here as the hard man with ties to Heidi will make one aware that this was a fine farewell performance (though he did complete other work before his passing). Heard doesn't try to make Thurman sympathetic but he does make him believable: a flawed man who finds that he cannot fully erase the truth.
So B. It should also serve as strong displays of the ranges of Barrett and Mihok, two actors who should work more. Of particular note is Mihok, whom I remember as a villainous character from Gotham, so to see him being so tender and gentle as the man who became a cop to save people shows a range yet untapped.
The issue of autism, especially the type shown in So B. It, is something that should be handled with delicacy. Here is where Gyllenhaal's directing and the performances of both Collins and Arden come into play. To their credit they didn't go overboard in making the character's autism into caricatures. I cannot say how close or far it is to people who do have that type of autism or whether it is wrong to have non-autistic people play these parts. I can say that it was well-handled.
If we can get to some issues that might be hard, it is in perhaps how Leachman, as good as she was as the slightly scatterbrained but ultimately wise Alice pretty much disappeared from the film. Granted, she was not going Heidi's way, but to give her no real farewell scene is a bit jarring. I also wonder whether So B. It, with its portrayal of autism and hard questions about parentage, emotional traumas, children travelling unsupervised and death, would be suitable for them.
At times it does make one wonder who this movie is for: it might be too much for young children but the child-centric story might put off adults. If you do have children, even if they've read the book, I would caution to see the film first to see if they could handle the visuals of some pretty tense moments. Seeing a child going into a casino, even under those circumstances, might also make one question logic. The idea that this child has almost magical powers with machines and games of chance might be a stretch, but that comes not from Gary Williams' script but from Sarah Weeks' novel. Therefore, if all that seems outlandish, the fault lies not with his adaptation but from the source material.
Those issues, while not taking away from the positives in So B. It, should be considered when deciding to see it. The film is extremely moving, with a powerful performance by Talitha Bateman, who manages to hold her own against true acting powerhouses like Leachman and Woodard.
So B. It is a deeply emotional film that has a positive ending, even if it isn't how one would think it would go. We could all use a little soof.