The Angel Doll (2002)
Director: Alexander Johnston
Cast: Betsy Brantley, Beatrice Bush, Pat Hingle
Synopsis: The story of two small town boys from different sides of the tracks: 1950’s childhood and self-redemption.
The Angel Doll is a little-seen gem of a movie about children, but made for adults. Bathing itself in the nostalgic glow of the 1950s without falling into the trap of sentimentality, it is initially reminiscent of Stand By Me, but quickly establishes its own identity.
Michael Welch plays Jerry Barlow, a typical 50s kid who strikes up a friendship with ‘Whitey’ Black (Cody Newton), a boy from a poor one-parent family whose little sister is terminally ill. As Christmas approaches, Jerry helps Whitey in his search for an angel doll for his sister.
While the storyline may sound a little fanciful, the movie remains rooted in real life throughout – although its message does appear to be a little confused at times. While it touches on prejudice (worried parents prohibit their children from playing with Whitey because his sister has polio – which isn’t contagious) it features a black family living peacefully alongside white folk in the deep South in the 50s — surely a more likely target of fearful and ignorant people.
The movie contains nice touches of home life that ring true even today (the parent’s questioning of Jerry about his camping expedition which is met with non-committal answers from their son, the family’s cursory reciting of grace before eating), and some imaginative camerawork (Whitey lying on his bed throwing his baseball up into the air toward the camera, for example).
The only jarring aspect of the movie is the Jekyll-and-Hyde character of Whitey’s beleaguered mother. In the space of maybe thirty minutes screen-time she transforms from loving mother to daytime-whiskey-drinking slob and back again for no believable reason. Such a transformation is totally unnecessary to the story, and merely serves to weaken what is an important sub-plot.
Having said that, perhaps one of this movie’s strengths — and something that is rarely seen in any movie, new or old — is that there is no true conclusion, no tidy gathering together of the strands, and certainly no happy ending (even though it is not a sad story); the story it tells is an episode from a young boy’s life, and, as with real life, once the episode is over he is left with questions unanswered.