Plot: This is based on the true story of Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), a teenager with a genetic defect that turned his face into a huge “mask” of bone. As the movie begins, Rocky and his mother Rusty (Cher) go to his new school, where the principal tells them Rocky cannot enroll. Rusty pulls out a file of paperwork and the name of her “lawyer”; she has been through this many times before. Rocky is enrolled. Then he is examined by a new doctor, who advises him sympathetically that he cannot expect to live more than three to six months. Rocky and Rusty have heard that before, too; they tell the doctor he has already outlived all previous predictions.
Rocky does very well in school, and the principal suggests that he become a counselor’s aide at a summer camp for the blind. There he meets Diana (Laura Dern) and has his first romance. They have a lovely time together, but her parents disapprove of the relationship.
Back at home, Rocky is getting impatient with Rusty. He is disappointed when she is not able to maintain a relationship with former boyfriend Gar (Sam Elliott), and loses patience with her alcohol and drug abuse. For him, she cleans up. Maybe it is because she knows at some level that he is nearing the end, and she wants him to die knowing that she will be all right.
Discussion: This is not a typical “disease of the week” movie about someone triumphing over adversity. It is a far more complex and moving story about two people who love and care for and about each other. Rusty does not work, lives on the fringes of society, uses drugs and abuses alcohol, and is sexually indiscriminate. Though in other aspects of her life she is completely irresponsible, even dissolute, with Rocky she is the ideal of maternal strength and commitment. And Rocky is a source of strength for her, too, acting almost as her parent, trying to help her do better and (mostly) forgiving her when she fails.
The movie has several exceptionally touching moments. Rocky tries to teach Diana about colors by using her other senses, giving her a frozen rock to touch to feel “blue.” Rocky peers into a funhouse mirror, and gets a glimpse of his features, distorted into what they might have been had he been “normal.” And, moved by Rocky’s academic triumph, a tough-looking biker named “Dozer” (for Bulldozer) reveals the real reason for his silence when he stutters so thickly he can barely get out the words of congratulation. The movie shows us over and over again that it is not about an “abnormal” boy in a normal world, but about a real boy in a world where everyone is different. As he says, “I look weird, but otherwise I’m real normal.”
Rocky has some interesting ways of coping with his problems. He has his version of Pollyanna’s “Glad Game,” using happy memories to help him through hard times. And his mother, who herself uses drugs, helps him manage his headaches without drugs by “talking them away.”
Questions for Kids:
· What do you think of the way that Rocky tries to show Diana what colors look like? If you were going to try to explain colors to a blind person, what would you do? What tastes, smells, touches and sounds would you use to give a blind person the feelings of red, yellow, blue, pink, green?
· Why don’t Diana’s parents want her to see Rocky? Does that surprise you? How do Rocky and Rusty take care of each other? Give some examples. Why is Rusty better at taking care of Rocky than she is at taking care of herself?
· Were you surprised by the tenderness of the bikers? In what way were they like a family?
· In what ways is it harder for Rocky to resolve his feelings of teenage rebellion than it would be for you?
· What do you think will happen to Rusty after the movie ends?
Connections: Families might also like to see actor Eric Stoltz without his “mask,” as John Brooke in “Little Women.” And mature high schoolers may appreciate “The Elephant Man,” another true story of a man with a facial disfigurement who enlarges the understanding and compassion of those who get to know him.
Activities: Teenagers who see this movie might like to try helping out in a facility for the handicapped, as Rocky did at the summer camp.