What is lost in "Losing Isaiah" isn't Isaiah but somebody's nerve. This tough, vivid urban drama looks at a wrenching social situation with a blinkless gaze until the very end -- and then it blinks, and how.
The text is adoption, the subtext is race, the sub-sub-text is the two Americas, which is where the movie begins. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal swoops down on Chicago from the Lake and shows us what can be seen from any plane vectoring into O'Hare: A glittery city of proud towers, a nest of skyscrapers where the business of the nation is conducted. But soon the camera passes beyond and we are gliding over the bleak flatlands of west Chicago, and there's not a skyscraper or a hope on the horizon.
We witness an atrocity: A young black woman named Khaila (Halle Berry), broken on the rack of narcotic addiction, lives an incoherent life on the fringes. A crack whore, she'd sell her soul for another hit on the pipe. Her soul being immediately inaccessible, she sells her next most precious possession: Her 3-day-old baby. At least she sells him out, by leaving him in a garbage pile as she wanders in quest of that hit.
But a miracle happens: A garbage crew discovers the child, who hasn't frozen to death and is quickly taken to an emergency ward where modern medicine works feverishly to revive him. In ** the hospital, what some might consider a second miracle and others might consider a second atrocity happens: A white woman notices the child and cannot deny her attraction to his fight and fury, his bright will to live. Touched, she determines that this will be a little piece of the city that she will save, where she's failed to save hardly anything else.
It's a strength of the film that it plays so tough. No generic suburban liberal, Jessica Lange's Margaret Lewin knows the pathologies of the inner city; she and her husband are among the hardy pioneers attempting to reclaim the city for the middle class, living on a nice street on the North Side. She also understands the system, and when she decides to adopt the abandoned baby, she uses her hard-won knowledge to achieve what she thinks is a picture-perfect adoption.
Meanwhile, consumed by guilt, Berry's Khaila has somehow fought her way to a better life via an inmate rehabilitation clinic and a lot of social work. Slowly, a step at a time, she keeps moving up to a semblance of a stable life, consumed all the time by the horror of her loss.
When a social worker discovers that her baby is not dead but adopted, the movie finds the core of its narrative, which is the court contest between Khaila, represented by shrewd Kadar Lewis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Margaret. Again, toughness: Kadar Lewis is no overwrought crusader but a cool apparatchik who has no particular emotional investment in Khaila but rather a more cold-blooded one in the cause of race -- meaning, simply, his rock-solid conviction that black children should be raised by black parents or by no parents.
"Losing Isaiah" doesn't mince words or pussyfoot around. It's about clashing earnestness as each side in the contest believes in the rightness of her moral position and operates, sometimes ruthlessly, on the logic of that position. Thus, good liberal Margaret finds herself likening Khaila to "an animal," and referring to African-Americans as "you people." Thus, Jackson's Lewis can assault the so-called "stability" of the upper-mid white professionals by using husband David Strathairn one-night infidelity of years back against him.
Nor does it sentimentalize. Isaiah, at 4, doesn't become a cuddly bundle of love, a "special" baby; he's a difficult child with an attention-span disorder and a tendency to act out. There's no indication at all that if he's left with the comfortable Lewins his will be a happily-ever-after life. Moreover, the film is honest as it depicts the strain he places on the Lewins, causing their daughter Hannah to resent his presence and twisting the relationship between the mother and father. Nothing in the horizon of "Losing Isaiah" is easy. Each relationship is blighted by doubt or treachery or past failure, and hope, even with the best of intentions, seems provisional at best.
Then why does the movie cop out so mightily at the end? Could it possibly be . . . marketing? Famously, the film was pulled from the release schedule last fall and perhaps preview cards dictated this softer, sweeter ending. It felt to this viewer, at any rate, like a colossal failure of courage. The ending of Isaiah's story could not be happy for everyone, for these are tough issues, and their resolutions are achieved only after intense games of brushback legal hardball.
But "Losing Isaiah" bumbles toward an affirming image of the brotherhood of man and the ability of people to put aside racial and cultural divisions and reach out and embrace in partnership. Would that it were so, but, tragically for this country, the jury is still out.
Starring Jessica Lange and Halle Berry
Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal
Released by Paramount