Suspended midway between heart-piercing drama and a standard-issue TV-movie, this story of a custody battle benefits most from its timeliness and the committed performances of Jessica Lange and Halle Berry.
As recent headlines have made depressingly clear, babies abandoned by crack-addicted mothers are not uncommon. Neither are attempts by those mothers to reclaim their children after they’ve been adopted by others.
Berry plays the birth mother here: a desperate Chicago woman so addled by her need for drugs that she leaves her boy in a cardboard box near a Dumpster.
The baby just escapes being trash-compacted and turns up at a hospital, where a social worker (Jessica Lange) is instrumental in saving his life and decides to adopt him.
Meanwhile, Berry is arrested for shoplifting, she enters a drug-rehabilitation program in prison and emerges three years later to start a new life on the outside. When she learns her boy is still alive, she aligns herself with a smart lawyer (Samuel L. Jackson) and tries to regain custody of Isaiah.
The courtroom becomes a forum for debate over which woman has the right to call herself the child’s true mother. Racial, economic and cultural influences come into play, and the filmmakers don’t at first suggest any easy solutions.
There are solid reasons for agreeing with both women, and neither actress holds back in stating her character’s case. Finally given a chance to stretch, Berry digs into the tougher role, lending credibility and passion to this seemingly unforgivable woman.
Harried, almost fanatical in her devotion to the boy, Lange is her match all the way.
“Losing Isaiah” reteams director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, who previously collaborated on the disappointingly thin Debra Winger vehicle, “A Dangerous Woman.” This is a richer film on almost every level, thanks to less compromised writing and more assured direction.
An Oscar nominee for her script for “Running on Empty,” Foner has a gift for creating emotionally charged situations that force us to contemplate the validity of several arguments at once.
But she doesn’t always trust this instinct, particularly during the more melodramatic stretches (especially a fight in a restroom) and a finale that seems too good to be true.
She could have done more with Berry’s would-be boyfriend (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who is encouraged to stay away from her while the court battle is taking place, and Lange’s husband (David Strathairn), who is forced under oath to make a devastating revelation in court.
Perhaps Foner’s original script did. Their participation in the story seems unnaturally truncated, as if their most revealing moments had been left on the cutting-room floor.
The most inspired touch here: a brief episode in the rain in which Lange and Jackson find themselves forced to occupy the same space during a cigarette break.
The uneasy truce says volumes about need, decency, arbitrary legal alliances and human frailty. “Losing Isaiah” could have used more scenes like it.
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with the story: “Losing Isaiah” Location: Lyons Cinemas Cast: Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal and starring Jessica Lange, Halle Berry, David Strathairn, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson. Rated: R Running time: 90 minutes