One part "Nell," one part "Frankenstein" and one part Michael Jackson, "Powder" supposes that the thing we fear is our more-perfect reflection. The title character (Sean Patrick Flanery) has reached the limit of human potential--his mind is greater, his body is stronger, he has powers beyond human comprehension. And of course, he has a heart to match. What he doesn't have is a film that casts more than pale tribute at such perfection.
Found after the death of his grandparents, in the house where the closed-minded old crones had kept him hidden, Powder turns out to be a lightning rod, literally and figuratively. His mother was struck by a thunderbolt while he was still in the womb (he remembers it all) and his affinity for electricity is supernatural. As a human oddity, he also attracts all the small-minded fears and hatreds of the rural Americans around him (wouldn't we like to think it's only them) and we know early on he can't survive. He's too pure, too perfect, too white. And too silly.
The actors seem to share our mirth. Mary Steenburgen, as the noble Jessie Caldwell, social worker/psychologist, strikes some spectacularly overwrought poses. She's no match, however, for Jeff Goldblum, who as math teacher and Powder confidant Donald Ripley (believe it or not) enters each room at the state orphanage as if he were Randolph Scott poised at the swinging saloon doors.
Lance Henriksen, as Sheriff Barnum (more references to hokum!), is stern and kind and completely confusing (why is he so intent on keeping Powder at the home?) while Brandon Smith does a nice portrayal of a stupid, prejudiced police officer, who can only instill deep confidence and security in the townsfolk, knowing he is armed and ignorant.
As Powder, Flanery gives a convincing enough portrayal of a young man totally unfamiliar with the world, who's learned everything he knows from books (which he can recite by heart) and who exhibits more courage than is called for. He does, however, look a lot like Michael Jackson, with his complexion, his rolled-up trousers and his fedora. Given the Barnum and Ripley allusions, I wonder how accidental all this was.
Powder may have a good soul, but he's very white. Startlingly white. Whiter than any albino person has ever been. And he changes. Sometimes he looks like a person without pigment. Other times, he seems to have been buttered and floured. The "special makeup" credited to Thomas R. Burman and Bari Dreiban-Burman, is one of the distracting flaws in the film. (This week's revelation that writer-director Victor Salva is a convicted child molester also might skew audience response to the film.)
But something's got to keep your attention, and if it's Powder's complexion . . . well, you could be waiting for Goldblum to collapse in laughter, which never quite happens.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense, sometimes frightening elements of theme, and for language. Times guidelines: crude language, ignorant youth.
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Sean Patrick: Flanery Powder
Mary Steenburgen: Jessie Caldwell
Lance Henriksen: Sheriff Barnum
Brandon Smith: Duncan
Jeff Goldblum: Donald Ripley
A Caravan Pictures production, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Victor Salva. Producers Roger Birnbaum, Daniel Grodnik. Screenplay by Salva. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Editor Dennis M. Hill. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Waldemar Kalinowski. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.