The Deep End of the Ocean takes a surprisingly low-key approach to a subject that stirs powerful emotions and is ripe for television movie-of-the-week exploitation: the disappearance of a child.
As milk cartons with mug shots have replaced milkman-delivered glass bottles, the primary American fear has changed as well. Instead of the Cold War and communism, it’s domestic crime and the specific fear of personal violation. Add to this the fact that parenthood has become the newest baby boomer religion and the heightened fears of parents have become a regular staple of media coverage.
This adaptation of Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Oprah-sanctioned bestseller by director Ulu Grosbard (Georgia, The Subject Was Roses) and screenwriter Stephen Schiff (Lolita) manages to straightforwardly express not just the trauma of a child’s disappearance, but shows how such events reverberate through the culture at large.
Beth (Michelle Pfeiffer) takes her three small children along to a high school reunion where, in a crowded hotel lobby, 3-year-old Ben vanishes. When the realization sets in, Beth becomes despondent, and she remains distracted and numb despite the efforts of her can-do husband, Pat (Treat Williams), to move on with their lives.
Nine years later, Beth encounters a neighborhood boy, Sam (Cory Buck), and instantly recognizes him as her lost son. The film then proceeds as a hesitant tale of paradise regained as this stranger is welcomed back to a family he doesn’t remember. The emotional fallout is felt most keenly by the conflicted Ben-Sam and his guilt-weaned older brother, Vincent (Jonathan Jackson), who became the de facto family caretaker when Beth retreated into her shell.
The Deep End of the Ocean shows how loss shakes the foundations of a strong family, even as it presents the best-case scenario of an abducted child: that Ben grew up not only safe, but loved. But despite strong, deeply felt performances, the film doesn’t dive far enough into the characters’ crisis of faith, relying too heavily on psycho-babble that proclaims no one is at fault and Ben’s disappearance was just an event that occasionally happens, like the seemingly solid ground suddenly shifting under your feet.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.