It's that heartwarming time of year, when misanthropes and contrarians run for cover to avoid being ambushed by all the glad tidings. Amid the relentless holiday cheer, the season would not be complete without movies that offer glowing triumph in the face of adversity. Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is regularly recycled on TV, of course.
But this Christmas the big screen might be dominated by some darker fare: In The Two Towers, director Peter Jackson provides the second chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's rather bleak Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese's long-awaited epic, tackles urban warfare between mid-19th-century Manhattan hoodlums. And The 25th Hour, by Spike Lee, concerns a drug dealer about to serve seven years in prison.
So, there's little wonder that the Lund Family Center's Wanda Audette is eagerly anticipating the December 20 release of Ant-wone Fisher, about a man who successfully faces his demons after enduring a terrible childhood. As the director of adoption, she hopes the biopic can help spotlight one of her agency's key mandates: finding adoptive homes for youngsters in foster care.
"Children need permanency in their lives," says Audette, who saw a September preview of the film in Washington, D.C. "I was there to receive a Congressional Angel in Adoption Award for Vermont. They had a premiere for about 100 people. Not one person got up to use the restroom. There was not a single dry eye."
At the event, Audette also met the real Antwone Fisher, who started out as a fatherless baby abandoned by his incarcerated mother in Cleveland. After years of abuse and neglect, he joined the Navy. But his rage followed him. The film, a directorial debut by actor Denzel Washington, begins with the troubled sailor's road to redemption while stationed at a base in San Diego.
Fisher, played by newcomer Derek Luke, has such a violent temper that he is ordered to attend psychotherapy sessions. Dr. Davenport (Washington) keeps failing to reach his reluctant patient, who understandably trusts no one. Given that this is an uplifting account, there are breakthroughs. Fisher comes to terms with his past, finds love with a good woman (Joy Bryant) and returns to Ohio on a quest to comprehend his complicated parental legacy.
Although Antwone Fisher has yet to open officially, initial reviews are mixed. Film Journal International calls it "an exceptionally enriching cinematic experience," while BoxOffice regrets that the project is too simplistically feel-good and "never challenging or provocative."
Nonetheless, Audette suspects that audiences will respond to a tale that's conveyed by the script Fisher adapted from his own memoir, Finding Fish. "It demonstrates that we all need at least one person who believes in us and is there for us," she says. "That's what we need in order to survive."
Audette has arranged to keep a table with relevant brochures in the theater lobby and perhaps have someone briefly speak about the issues before each show of Antwone Fisher. The 110-year-old Lund Center, which maintains various services for pregnant women and young mothers, coordinates approximately 100 adoptions a year, primarily of newborns. A three-year federal grant has also allowed the organization to focus on permanent placements for older children in temporary foster care, who number between 1400 and 1600 statewide.
Until her turning point a decade ago, southern Vermont's Charlotte Lopez still figured prominently in those statistics. She was finally adopted by a Dorset couple at age 17, after bouncing around without a functional family since her toddler years. Crowned Miss Teen USA in 1993, the girl wrote an autobiography, and campaigned to reform the foster-care system. Sadly, both her biological and adoptive mothers have since died.
Now 26, Lopez is a Los Angeles thespian who has appeared in several movies and as a romantic, glamorous character in a Ricky Martin music video. Last year, she even had a small role in Training Day, the movie that earned Denzel Washington an Oscar for his performance as a ruthless cop.
Her stage name is Charlotte Ayanna, a Cherokee word for "blessed" -- indicating an optimistic outlook despite all that difficult history. The Lopez/Ayanna saga, like that of Antwone Fisher, seems life-affirming enough to make even the most cranky misanthrope or contrarian feel a wee bit merry.