"Losing Isaiah" is a highly affecting balancing act. It has all the elements of a TV movie-of-the-week tear-jerker: A white social worker, Margaret Lewin (Jessica Lange), adopts an African American crack baby, Isaiah (played as a 3-year-old by Marc John Jeffries), and the baby's biological mother Khaila (Halle Berry) tries to get him back. The scenario--by Naomi Foner, based upon the Seth Margolis novel--plays, at least superficially, like a compendium of socially conscious playlets. We're enlisted in a guided tour of controversy about trans-racial adoption, single motherhood, black-white racism, day care and marital infidelity.
And yet, "Losing Isaiah" doesn't come across as a screed or, despite a few swerves into mawkishness at the end, a weepy. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal brings out the passion in the material without slobbering all over us. He understands the importance of what is ultimately at stake here--Isaiah's future.
We first see Margaret in the Chicago hospital where Isaiah has been rushed after nearly being crushed to death inside a garbage truck compactor. Khaila, out of her mind on crack, had deposited him the night before in a cardboard box in an alley and then forgotten to retrieve him. When she comes to, she thinks she's killed him and gets herself arrested for shoplifting and then incarcerated for three years in an inmate-run drug rehab program.
Margaret has the worn, somewhat blowzy look of a woman who has been wrung out by caring. She has developed a professional stance: gregarious and a bit peremptory. She has disdain for the doctors who consider babies like Isaiah, born with multiple defects, low priority.
But we also sense something distinctly missing in her life. Her husband, Charles (David Straithairn), doesn't appear to satisfy her need to connect emotionally: He's an intelligent, somewhat closed-off man who wants more care from his care-giver wife. Isaiah brings out in Margaret her own wounded, valiant fortitude, her need to turn love into a crusade. She's enamored of Isaiah's fighting spirit--and she wants to be a part of his triumph.
The bulk of the film's conflict comes when Khaila, out of prison and living in an overcrowded apartment in the projects, discovers her baby is still alive and sues to get him back. She has been rehabilitated, although her life is a constant, grueling temptation to return to crack, and the news that Isaiah is alive sends her into a messianic state equal to Margaret's. In a way, the boy has become both Margaret's and Khaila's reason for living; and one of the most vivid crosscurrents in the movie is the way both women inspire their claims for motherhood.
They are divided by their opposing interests, and yet their love for Isaiah can't help but unite them too. (When Margaret first sees Khaila in the courtroom, she's thunderstruck by her beauty.) Fighting for Isaiah, these dueling mothers are like twin spirits. It seems unspeakably cruel that their very love should have brought them to this place.
The film crosscuts between the lives of Margaret and Khaila, and the back-and-forth movement reinforces the slugged, abrupt quality of their days once the battle begins. It also cuts back on the amplitude of the performances. Lange and Berry work in potent, compact episodes and sometimes, especially with Lange, one wants to be with them for a longer stretch. It's a testament to the film's emotional power that you always want more than it gives you--but it's also an indication of how overextended it sometimes is.
The filmmakers bring front and center the issues of transracial adoption; they position Isaiah as a kind of test case. In this they mimic the lawyers for both sides, especially Khaila's (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who appear to be using the child as a political football. The courtroom scenes are gripping but also more conventional than the film at its best, where political considerations take second-billing to the deep, conflicting passions of the two women. The court proceedings frame those passions, but they also subtract from them--emotionally, we've already gone beyond them.
Even though the conflict in "Losing Isaiah" is, literally, black and white, Gyllenhaal and Foner don't stack the deck for either Margaret or Khaila, and that's as it should be. They've taken a situation that is, almost by design, unsolvable (even though a solution is finally provided). They give themselves over to the women's competing claims without preconception; they allow each woman her due. The actresses respond with an all-out fervor.
Few current directors can match Gyllenhaal's work with actresses: Barbara Hershey has never been better than in his TV movies "A Killing in a Small Town" and "Paris Trout," and Sinead Cusack in "Waterland" and Debra Winger in "A Dangerous Woman" were also startlingly good. Halle Berry, whose previous movie work has mostly been decorative, comes through with a powerful piece of work.
Jessica Lange does too--nothing new in that. Her Margaret seems to be harboring some deep sorrow, even before Isaiah enters her life. When she fears Isaiah may be taken away from her, she has a brief scene where she whispers fairy tales to him in bed, and there's a mysterious, compelling suspense in her whisperings, as if she yearned to be whisked away from this world with Isaiah to a real fairy-tale realm. Lange gives the film its core of knockabout sadness.
In the best sense, "Losing Isaiah" is the kind of film that makes audiences want to talk about it afterward.
* MPAA rating: R, for drug-related material and brief, strong language. Times guidelines: It includes a scene of a baby being almost crushed to death.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
'Losing Isaiah' Jessica Lange: Margaret Lewin Halle Berry: Khaila Richards David Straithairn: Charles Lewin Cuba Gooding Jr.: Eddie Hughes A Paramount Pictures presentation. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal. Producers Howard W. Koch Jr. and Naomi Foner. Screenplay by Naomi Foner, based upon the novel by Seth Margolis. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Harvey Rosenstock. Costumes Mary Malin. Music Mark Isham. Production design Jeannine C. Oppewall. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.