The hero of The Mighty -- the title character, in fact -- is an eighth-grader known by the nickname Freak (Kieran Culkin). His might isn't physical -- he's a small, frail boy who suffers from a degenerative birth defect. His spine curves painfully, and he's able to walk only with crutches and leg braces. But he has a quick mind and a bold, Arthurian spirit.
He also has a friend. His neighbor in the duplex next door is Max Kane (Elden Henson), an enormous kid about Freak's age. Max suffered a horrifying childhood trauma that has left him silent and brooding, so that those around him think he's retarded, inarticulate, and potentially dangerous. He isn't -- as we can tell from his narration, Max is just thoughtful and guarded -- but he's as convinced as anyone else that he has no brain, or, as he puts it, that he has a "dinosaur brain." Like a dinosaur, however, he has might to spare. As he and Freak become closer and closer friends, he takes to carrying the tiny, twisted kid on his shoulders, turning himself into Freak's trusty steed, almost an auxiliary body. Freak formalizes this arrangement by noting that he needs legs, and Max needs a brain, and the Wizard of Oz doesn't live in South Cincinnati.
No, indeed, British actor-turned-director Peter Chelsom, whose previous films include Hear My Song (1991) and Funny Bones (1994), doesn't make the shabbier side of Cincinnati, where The Mighty is set, look much like an Emerald City. All the same, the film is a fairy tale, and I don't use the term disparagingly; this is not a safe, platitudinous fable in the modern style, designed to keep parents comfortable, but rather a real fairy tale, with sentimentality and tough-mindedness and violence and loss and humor and magic all mixed together.
Adapted by Charles Leavitt from Rodman Philbrick's bluntly written 1993 young-adult novel Freak the Mighty -- Philbrick usually writes books for grown-ups -- The Mighty is, at times, a startlingly skillful piece of filmmaking. It's a lot more cinematically graceful than the recent Simon Birch, which it strikingly recalls in terms of plot and theme; both are about a congenitally small protagonist who believes himself destined for heroism, and both are narrated by his half-orphaned best friend.
But Simon Birch, though mostly agreeable, has an ersatz, Norman Rockwell tameness; The Mighty, conversely, pushes too hard at times, like when a juvie, for no reason, knocks Freak off his crutches with a basketball. But with its gritty setting, Brit-folk-flavored music, and authentic-looking cast, along with Chelsom's fine eye, it feels both more realistic and more truly mythic than Simon Birch.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the film is any less manipulative than Simon Birch or any other disabled-kid-with-a-heart-of-gold movie -- only that it's more clever. (It could be argued, I suppose, that the film's avoidance of the conventionally maudlin makes its heart-tugging all the more calculated.) But there's a soul and an urgency to it -- even when it's thrashing around in some ugly melodrama -- that never feel like the products of cynicism.
A few name players -- Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton, Gillian Anderson, Meat Loaf, and Jenifer Lewis -- are shooed through the film in supporting roles, and all do effective turns. Kieran Culkin has the comic timing and alert, open face that his glassy-eyed, monotone-voiced older brother Macaulay lost between Uncle Buck and Home Alone; Kieran might just turn out to be an actor.
The real find, though, is Elden Henson. With his round, pasty face and his subtle line readings -- which give the suggestion of intelligence thwarted -- he's very touching, especially when the presence of Max's scary ex-con father (James Gandolfini) leaves him frozen like a deer in the headlights.
Sharon Stone receives top billing as Gwen, Freak's loving mom. It's actually a fairly small role, and an obvious attempt on her part to break away from her sexpot image, and to her credit Stone brings it off nicely. Without any hammy telegraphing, she lets you see the anxiety behind her warm smile, and her unforced, heartfelt work near the end of the film suggests that she has more range than she's had the chance to show in earlier roles.
Casting a glamour puss like Stone in this hard-knock role isn't false to the source material, either. In Philbrick's novel, Max describes Gwen thus: "She looks like some kind of movie star. Wearing these old jeans and a baggy T-shirt, and her long hair tied back and she's probably sweating, but she still looks like a movie star. Like she has this glow, a secret spotlight that follows her around and makes her eyes light up." Maybe Philbrick had Stone in mind all along.