Mask a Rocky but Powerful True Story
What's the matter, never seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before? - Rusty Dennis
"Mask" is the true story of Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), an American teenager who since childhood suffered from a rare bone disease which had left his face horribly disfigured. Despite predictions from the doctors that his disease would kill him before the age of ten, Rocky proved them wrong and having reached his teenage years is trying to live a normal life, despite the daily prejudices he encounters from his peers. Adding to his woe is his unconventional home life being raised by a drug addicted mother Rusty Dennis (Cher) and her friends a band of bike riding heavies.
To my shame I have to admit that the first time I watched "Mask" during the early 90s I switched it off because I could not deal with the horrible disfiguration which Rocky Dennis lived with. But since then, and having grown up somewhat, I have revisited "Mask" numerous times as it is one of the most compelling dramas I have ever had the pleasure to watch. What is also quite amazing about "Mask" is that it was released in the middle of the 80s when the cinema going audiences seemed to want innocent entertainment like "Sixteen Candles" instead of powerful true life dramas such as this.
For me when I read that a movie is based on a true story I approach it with a certain amount of caution, but whilst I cannot say how accurate this interpretation is, I can say that "Mask" is vastly different to the majority of movies which base their plot on a real life story. Whilst the usual route of action for true story movies is to pile on the sentiment with highly contrived scenes which focus on pushing the audiences' buttons to gain a desired emotion. "Mask" steers well clear of this allowing the film to naturally progress using the drama of the story, of Rocky and Rusty's lives to give the audience an emotional journey whilst also delivering a highly powerful message.
With the main focus of "Mask" being on the prejudices which Rocky Dennis faces as people struggle to deal with the way he looks, the film manages to stay pretty clear of throwing to many cliche scenes at us where people are repulsed by the way he looks. On the occasions where we do get these moments they are dealt with quickly and admirably showing the courage of Rocky as he deals with the name calling with a certain amount of humour. In fact it is the way in which Rocky deals with other peoples issues helps change their views on him and it is wonderful to see the way he becomes a friend to many of those who initially struggle with his look.
Of course "mask" is not just about the prejudices that Rocky Dennis suffers and we get a great look at the issues he encounters whilst trying to lead a normal teenage life, most importantly wanting to fall in love. In some of the most beautiful scenes in the whole of "Mask" we see Rocky befriend a blind girl whilst working at a holiday camp for the visually impaired, and the innocence of the romance which blossoms due to the girl not judging him on his looks is truly brilliant.
Adding to the whole drama of "Mask" is the slightly unconventional home life which Rocky leads with his drug taking mother Rusty and their biker friends. Whilst again this could have easily fallen to a very cliche, stereotypical portrayal of both elements the film actually goes down a different route, with Rusty Dennis actually coming across as a very loving person instead of being out of her head and the bikers as being a caring bunch of people who treat Rocky like a son. In fact this side of the plot is equally as good as the main focus on the prejudices and makes the film have a very well rounded feel to it. What is amazing is at 127 minutes long "Mask" never seems to drag as it is these ample storylines which makes the film move at such a natural unforced pace.
Whilst the exceptional plot is a huge reason why "Mask" is such engrossing viewing, it is also the wonderful characters and remarkable performances which help to set the movie head and shoulders above others in the same genre. The most amazing performance comes from Eric Stoltz (Little Women) as Rocky Dennis, who manages to portray with such effectiveness and relative ease the angst that Rocky goes through dealing with teenage life at school and home. Of course it does help that he is disguised behind amazing make-up but you do honestly forget you are watching an actor and not a real person.
At the same time the performance from Cher (Mermaids) as his mother, Rusty, is equally as stunning. Although I usually struggle with singers who try their hands at acting, accusing them of playing to the cameras, Cher manages to convey a real sense of caring for Rocky as if she really was his mother. Making up the cast is Sam Elliott (Tombstone) as Gar, a biker who has feelings for Rusty and treats Rocky like a son. Although the majority of the film focuses on Rocky and Rusty, Elliott's performance fits comfortably within the film and whilst you never can disconnect his performance from being that of an actor, it is one of his most enjoyable.
Special mention should go to a young Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) who plays the blind girl, Diana, who Rocky falls in love with. In one scene where Rocky uses senses such as hot and cold to explain to her the colour red and blue, you completely forget that this is an actress playing the part of a blind girl. What comes across from all the performances is a sense of real caring for the story and like with the plot you become involved with the characters rather than feeling on the outside.
I have only one criticism of "Mask" and it is nothing to do with the plot or acting, but more to do with the way director Peter Bogdanovich has shot it. Maybe it was the in thing with dramas in the 80s but the film has a rather soft, autumnal look to it which for me spoils the viewing pleasure slightly. But saying that I cannot fault him for anything else, from the opening scenes where are first glimpse of Rocky's horrible disfigurement is seen in his bedroom mirror, or the way he characterises the bikers as tough men but with hearts of gold, everything else is spot on. Especially the stunning soundtrack which opens with a foot tapping version of "Katmandu" by Bob Seger, and never drops with music coming from Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Richard. For those who remember the original release may query that I mention Bruce Springsteen, as his songs never appeared in the original edit due to a licensing issue. Thankfully they have been reintroduced in the DVD release and really are a worth while inclusion.
What this all boils down to is that whilst the subject matter of "Mask" may make for hard viewing at times it is one I would strongly recommend to all ages, as the message it gets across about prejudices, with out forcing it down your throat, is one that is very real. Although I cannot say whether this is a realistic interpretation of the true story, I can say it is one of the best true story films I have watched in many a year. With a stunning plot which flows naturally and brilliant performances from Eric Stoltz and Cher, it is a film which deserves more acclaim than it has achieved. My only criticism of the film lies in the way it has been shot which softens it a little too much for my liking.
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