Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) reads David Copperfield aloud to his fellow orphans, letting us know that like Copperfield, he will let us decide for ourselves whether he is the hero of his own life. Homer, twice returned by adoptive parents, has become the surrogate son of the head of the orphanage, the benevolent Dr. Larch (Michael Caine).
The orphanage is a place where people come “to find a child or to leave one behind.” And women also come there for abortions — “Sometimes it was the woman who needed to be delivered.”
The movie is set during World War II, and abortion is illegal. Homer, who has never been to school, has been trained by Dr. Larch to practice medicine and perform medical procedures. But he will not do abortions, even when Dr. Larch shows him that the alternative is to leave women to take desperate, even fatal, measures to end pregnancy. They are unable to save one woman who comes to them after a botched abortion. As they bury her, Dr. Larch tells Homer that “she died of secrecy — she died of ignorance.” Still, Homer refuses, because it is illegal and also perhaps partly because he is aware that he and the other orphans were the results of unwanted pregnancies.
Dr. Larch is clearly raising Homer to take his place. But Homer hitches a ride with a couple who has come to the orphanage for an abortion and goes out to see the world outside the orphanage for the first time.
Homer gets a job picking apples, living in barracks with migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). On the wall is a list of rules, but the migrant workers cannot read, and they believe that since they did not write the rules, the rules cannot apply to them. They feel the same way about other kinds of rules. Mr. Rose says, “Don’t be holy to me about the law — what has the law done for any of us here?”
This is the theme of the movie. Many of the characters break rules, from the rules on the wall (against smoking in bed and climbing on the roof) to the laws of the state (abortion, licensing requirements, prohibitions on drug abuse), to rules that most people would consider fundamental principles of morality (prohibitions against dishonesty, betrayal of a friend’s trust, incest, and, for many people, abortion).
In some cases, viewers will think that breaking the rules was the right thing; in others they will not.
Notice that there are rules that characters take seriously, like the rules that Mr. Rose explains to Homer about how to pick apples. One of those rules, is to be careful not to pick an apple bud, because then “you’re picking two apples, this year’s and next year’s,” a rule which may have a deeper meaning to Homer given his views on abortion.
Families should talk about rules, how they are developed, when, if ever, breaking rules is justified, and, when it is justified, how important it is to be willing to take the consequences. Some characters in the movie seem to let life decide things for them, but others take the situation into their own hands, and it is worth discussing how to know when to act.
Questions to talk about with teens who see the movie include: What does it tell us that Homer was rejected by one set of adoptive parents for not crying and by another for crying too much? Why did Buster say that he’d like to kill his parents if he found them? Why did Dr. Larch tell the board that he did not want Homer to work at the orphanage? What is the importance of Mr. Rose’s question, “What business are you in?” What business was he in, and what business was Homer in? Which lies in the movie do you think were right and which were wrong? Do you agree with the doctor’s statement that adolescence is “when we think we have something terrible to hide from those who love us?” And compare the way that Candy lets life make decisions for her with a “wait and see” approach to Homer, who makes decisions based on his values, including the importance of having a purpose. They have very different reasons for getting together — he loves her, but she “just can’t be alone.”
Parents should know that the movie includes incest, non-explicit scenes of abortions, nudity, drug abuse, and a non-explicit scene of an unmarried couple having sex. There are also some very sad character deaths, including a child.