leave a comment --Ken Fox
Winner of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Audience Award, TV journalist-turned-filmmaker Jonathan Karsh's powerful and startlingly unsentimental movie examines the lives of Susan Tom and her 11 adopted children. What makes the Tom family unique isn't just its size, or the fact that Susan, a divorcee with two grown children of her own, manages to run her household with no steady income or savings. It's that all of Susan's adopted kids are special-needs children whose handicaps range from mild retardation to terminal illness. They include 19-year-old Anthony, who suffers from a degenerative disease that makes his skin pull away from his body at the slightest touch; Hannah and Xenia, Russian emigres both born without legs; and 8-year-old Faith, whose face, back and hand were severely burned when she was an infant. And then there's 15-year-old Joe, who in many ways becomes the focus of the film. While outwardly healthy looking, Joe has cystic fibrosis and diabetes, as well as hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, which contribute to his emotionally unbalanced, often violent behavior. Karsh first encountered this remarkable family when the local CBS newsmagazine he was hosting ran a segment on Susan, and he decided that he'd like to devote an entire feature film to her story; Susan in turn agreed to allow Karsh and his crew into her house for one year. During that time they capture quite a bit of drama as Susan and her kids meet the challenges of their individual handicaps, as well as the growing pains all kids go through. But Karsh's real achievement lies in his willingness to look a bit deeper into the Tom family dynamic, without detracting from the virtue of Susan's dedication. Susan's visiting mother, who hadn't seen her daughter in over six years, hints that Susan's altruistic impulses might spring from her deep need to fill a "void of loneliness." And in the film's most disturbing moment, 18-year-old Margaret, the healthy daughter on whom Susan relies heavily for help, has an on-camera emotional meltdown triggered by the pressure of attending to so many needs with little emotional support from her mother. Far from a saint, Susan Tom emerges as something even more interesting: a flawed yet deeply compassionate human being.