Henry & Verlin

Canadian Melodrama

Toronto Film Festival 1994–Sensitive handling of touchy issues and superb acting elevate “Henry & Verlin,” a compassionate story of an unusual friendship between a child-like man and his emotionally remote autistic nephew, a notch or two above the sentimental melodramas shown on American TV-Movie-of-the-Week.

Though picture is predictable, its inspirational human values, preaching for greater tolerance and acceptance, should make it accessible to audiences beyond the Canadian borders.

Set in an Ontario rural community during the Great Depression, tale revolves around Verlin (Keegan Macintosh) a nine-year-old boy who doesn't talk. Annoyed by his inability to communicate, Verlin's mother Minnie (Nancy Beatty) takes him to a narrow-minded doctor (David Cronenberg), all along accusing her husband Ferris (Robert Joy), a devoted family man who's easily swayed by public pressure, of passivity and indifference.

Things change when Ferris' brother Henry (Gary Farmer), befriends Verlin and pulls him away from his overly protective family. In pic's best sequences, Henry teaches his nephew some small pleasures, like rolling cigarettes, stealing chicken, running in the open fields, and the boy finally shows signs of life.

Together, they visit Mabel (Margot Kidder), a retired prostitute with a wooden leg who lives on the outskirts of town. Soon the three form the kind of intimate bond that exists among social outcasts, much to the resentment of the small town's reactionary forces.

Adapting his father's stories to the screen, writer-director Ledbetter piles up a large number of melodramatic obstacles, such as Henry accidentally setting a barn on fire or beatings by the town's thugs, that prevent the misfits from developing their unique attachment. At the story's climax, Henry and Verlin, who's now comatose, are confined in the same institution, though it's only a matter of time before they stage an ingenious escape.

The film's emotional convulsions are decisively structured, and happily, only a few scenes have the tear-jerking desperation associated with the genre. Showing taste and discretion, first-time helmer understands that the point of using melodramatically conceived events is to have a big emotional pay-off, which the film satisfyingly delivers with the assistance of Korven's rousing music.

A big child-like man, Henry's character bears resemblance to Lenny, the protagonist of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which is also set in the Depression. He is superbly embodied by Farmer, who's particularly effective at conveying the man's innocence and naivete. The strong chemistry between Farmer and Macintosh, who plays Verlin in a natural, understated manner, promotes the story's likability.

Kidder, who looks a bit like Barbara Hershey in this picture, gives one of her more impressive performances in a flashy role that's extremely well-written. As the parents, Joy and Beatty are stuck with the plot's unconvincing portion, which they carry modestly and credibly.

Handsome tech credits compensate for a film that plays like a series of familiar set-ups, painted with too broad a brush. Linden's crisp lensing and Sarafinchan's imaginative design are lush yet specific, evoking a feel of a particular time and place.

Cast

Henry………….Gary Farmer
Verlin…….Keegan Macintosh
Minnie………..Nancy Beatty
Ferris………….Robert Joy
Agnes……….Joan Orenstein
Lovejoy………Eric Peterson
Mabel………..Margot Kidder
Doc Fisher…David Cronenberg

Credits

An Original Motion Picture Company and Act of God Productions presentation. Produced by John Board. Executive producer, Simon Board. Directed, written by Gary Ledbetter; screenplay based on Ken Ledbetter's stories. Camera (Eastman, color), Paul van der Linden; editor, Miume Jan Eramo; music, Mark Korven; production design, Lillian Sarafinchan; costume design, Nancy McHugh; associate producer, Jean Stawarz; casting, Dorothy Gardner. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, September 15 , 1994. Running time: 87 min.