Thursday, April 11, 2019

William: A Portrait of a Young Neanderthal in the Human World

In his short story “The Ugly Little Boy,” Isaac Asimov brought a Neanderthal child into modern times through time travel. Dr. Julian Reed and Dr. Barbara Sullivan will do it via cloning. That avoids messy space-time continuum problems, but it means they will have a Neanderthal son to raise. The title character will have a difficult time coming to terms with his unique status and legacy in Tim Disney’s William, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Thanks to Reed’s mentor, Dr. Godwin Thomas, Wallace University has a remarkably well-preserved Neanderthal body, with intact DNA. Of course, cloning a Neanderthal is a challenging task, but the combined specialties of Sullivan and Reed make them the academic power couple to pull it off. Even though university president Bob Clayborn tries to pull the plug, they clone him anyway. After Sullivan carries his embryo to term, she continues to raise William as her son, but Reed probably sees him more as a research subject. He still has a few fathering moments in him, but his insensitivity and blinding scientific enthusiasm will be issues.

In contrast, William is quite the sensitive lad. In fact, he has a habit of over-thinking matters from a very literal frame of mind. He is also keenly aware of his outsider status, especially when it comes to girls. However, he finds a sympathetic ear in Sarah, his divorced father’s live-in grad student girlfriend.

William starts out as a thoughtful, emotionally complex film that could have been a worthy companion to Fred Schepisi’s Iceman. That makes the ham-fisted, clumsily didactic, ridiculously melodramatic third act such a bitter disappointment. Disney and co-screenwriter J.T. Allen do not merely throw all their accumulated good will out the window. They proceed to give the audience the cinematic equivalent of obscene hand gestures. Seriously, the closing montage and final scene will make you audibly groan with pain.

It is a real shame, because Will Brittain gives a highly compelling and tightly disciplined performance as William. He and his character deserve far better than what Disney gives them. Susan Park’ work as Sarah is also finely calibrated and ultimately quite touching. Beth Grant also has some nice moments as Dr. Thomas. Unfortunately, Waleed Zuaiter and Maria Dizzia are both portraying William’s parents as broad, paint-by-numbers stereotypes.

It is hard to watch a potentially quality film so thoroughly sabotage itself down the stretch, but that is exactly what happens during William. If you are intrigued by the theoretical meeting of humans and Neanderthals, read Asimov’s story or revisit Schepisi’s film. Frustratingly, William is not recommended when it opens tomorrow (4/12) in New York, at the Village East.