Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Simon Birch – A Child’s Faith, Stronger Than Most Adults

Written by Mark Steven Johnson and John Irving
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

For the record, I have read many of John Irving’s books. However, I haven’t read the one Simon Birch is based on, or if I have I can’t remember it. In a way, that’s probably a good thing, since I came into Simon Birch with no bias about it.

Based on the John Irving novel, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, Simon Birch tells the story of two friends in a small Maine town. Each of them are misfits in their own way. Joe Wenteworth (portrayed by Joseph Mazzello) was born out of wedlock while Simon Birch (portrayed by Ian Michael Smith) is a dwarf.

Joe’s mother, Rebecca (portrayed by Ashley Judd) is one of the few people truly kind to Simon who accepts him totally. Simon’s own parents are indifferent, having expected him to die soon after he was born, and probably wishing in some ways he had so they could put this part of their lives behind them. It’s quite obvious they do not see their child as a gift in any way, but rather as a burden, as if they have been judged and this is their punishment.

When Rebecca gets a new boyfriend, Ben (portrayed by Oliver Platt), Joe has trouble accepting him. Life is looking up, however, as Joe begins to come around. Ben is kind to both of the boys and not overbearing. He’s willing to give Joe the room he needs while at the same time being himself and not trying to purchase the boy’s affection.

Much of the film is spent on their everyday lives as these two boys who are socially awkward due to the societal perceptions about them. Still, most of the time Joe isn’t all that self-conscious about his status as a “bastard” although it does weigh on him. Simon seems to spend a good deal of his time making others uncomfortable, deliberately.

The boys play Little League together. Simon always ends up with a walk due to his small stature. One day their coach tells Simon to swing away. He does that, and nails a pitch right into the side of Rebecca’s head, killing her. This shocking moment doesn’t split their friendship apart, but in many ways brings them closer than ever before as they become determined to find out who Joe’s “real” father is. Rebecca had promised to tell Joe when he was older, and of course, now, never got the chance.

I pretty much figured out who the father was early on, and chances are anyone with half a brain will as well. What will happen when father and son finally confront each other is what I was waiting for. I can’t say it was the only suspenseful part of the film, but I can’t reveal a terrific scene and plot twist without ruining the movie for others.

Simon Birch is narrated by Jim Carrey as the older Joe. He is excellent. He has the right amount of inflection and seems to still capture the boyish exuberance Joe once had. There are only a few roles that I really like Carrey in, and this is one of them.

Both of the youthful actors are excellent, especially Ian Michael Smith. He captures the sadness in Simon’s soul without overdoing it, and with trying to come off with a light heart and Teflon exterior. Only a few people see through that, and one of them is Rebecca. He also captures his budding adolescence of Simon quite nicely, which caught me off guard. Due to his size, I automatically think of him as younger than he really is, and hearing some of the things he says (especially about Rebecca) surprised me at first. His earnestness when he is professing his faith in who he is and what his purpose is here on our planet is done excellently. He conveys that this is another thing he is hanging onto in his otherwise meaningless life as he is rejected by his parents, kids his own age, and even at church.

Joseph Mazzello is excellent as the boy forced to grow up a lot faster than he should have. His feelings are often worn on his sleeve, and Mazzello is great at doing that. I could feel the power of forgiveness in his heart when Simon accidentally kills his mother for he’s not just forgiving him because it’s the right thing to do – he’s forgiving Simon because Joe needs him in his life. Mazzello gives a performance here that far eclipses anything he’s been seen in before.

I have always liked Oliver Platt quite a bit and here he is excellent as Ben. At first, I thought Ben would disappear after Rebecca died, but the way he comes around and gets intertwined with the two boys once again is quite nice. Platt is affable and fun without being overbearing. He’s one of those actors that can be just as funny when he’s playing subdued as when he’s playing “on” and it’s something I really like about him.

The story is one of faith and believing in yourself. It’s a nice buddy picture as well, showing the bond the two small-town misfits have. But really, it comes down to showing Simon’s faith carrying him through all of the burdens that have been placed on him. I cried really hard the night I watched it, but it felt good afterward.

What’s really scary is that the police chief in the movie looks just like the one we have in our small town…


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