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Paramount Studios presents
Losing Isaiah (1995)

"Isaiah. And he shall be called wonderful."
- Margaret Lewin (Jessica Lange)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: November 11, 2003

Stars: Jessica Lange, Halle Berry, David Strathairn, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal

MPAA Rating: R for drug related material and brief strong language
Run Time: 01h:46m:46s
Release Date: September 09, 2003
UPC: 097363283645
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AA-B+ D-

DVD Review

When a film is titled Losing Isaiah and the DVD cover art pictures a white woman blissfully hugging a black baby to her breast while a black woman ominously glares in the background, it's easy to predict the gut-wrenching custody battle to come. It's also easy to predict a trite, manipulative treatment of the subject, thanks to a barrage of sappy TV movies that choose to exploit the bickering and misery surrounding such cases, rather than examine the more potent moral and social issues involved.

But herein lies the surprise. Losing Isaiah is much less like a typical Lifetime movie-of-the-week than it looks. Although Stephen Gyllenhaal's film possesses plenty of well-orchestrated pathos, Losing Isaiah doesn't shrink from confronting relevant themes in an intelligent, thought provoking manner, and raising questions that demand serious debate.

Parallels between this movie and the granddaddy of all child custody films, the Oscar®-winning Kramer vs. Kramer, can't be ignored. But while the Dustin Hoffman-Meryl Streep drama dissects the most conventional type of custody battle, Losing Isaiah stokes the fire with a far more provocative case. Instead of a divorced couple fighting for their parental rights, the combatants here are two women, both of whom claim to be the mother of the child in question. Add the explosive element of race and the muddy waters of adoption, and the dramatic possibilities and social implications multiply exponentially.

The film's premise is little more than a ripped-from-the-headlines cliché, but Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner add layers and textures to the drama that admirably heighten its complexity. An effective aerial shot opens the film and efficiently foreshadows the collision of two opposing worlds, as the camera pans across the twinkling splendor of Chicago's ritzy North Side and sweeps into the South Side's darker wasteland. There, in a filthy, disheveled slum, Khaila Richards (Halle Berry) craves a crack fix. Her incessantly crying baby, however, lies in the way, so she drops the shrill nuisance in a cardboard box next to a trash bin, and proceeds to her local dealer. Several hours and crack hits later, her swollen breasts remind her to retrieve little Isaiah, and as she frantically rummages through the leftover garbage, a homeless man barks incoherent phrases about police and a dead baby.

Unbeknownst to Khaila, two sanitation workers rescued Isaiah from the jaws of their truck's compacter and rushed him to a local hospital, but his lack of identification hinders attempts to locate his mother. Meanwhile, social worker Margaret Lewin (Jessica Lange) becomes attached to the baby and persuades her husband (David Strathairn) and preteen daughter (Daisy Eagan) to allow her to begin the adoption process.

Two years pass. Losing Isaiah changes Khaila, inspiring her to clean up her act. She kicks her drug habit, learns to read and takes a job as a daytime nanny. When she finds out Isaiah is alive, the knowledge further fuels her rehabilitation, and she engages attorney/advocate Kadar Lewis (Samuel L. Jackson) to help her win back her son. Yet the Lewins, who adore Isaiah and see him unequivocally as their son, vow to keep the child in the only home—and with the only parents—he has ever known.

Losing Isaiah delicately but pointedly raises the issue of race, making us ponder whether an "environment" or "heritage" is more important for Isaiah than the simple colorblind love the Lewins provide. Is a black family really necessary for a black child's well-being and sense of self? And should Khaila, who abandoned her child, be allowed to swoop back into his life and snatch him away from a stable, loving family? Does she possess a deeper or more righteous claim on Isaiah simply because she bore him? What about the woman who has loved and raised him since infancy, whom the child himself calls "mommy"? The film is suspenseful and unpredictable because we see the virtue in both women's arguments and root for them both in different ways. Khaila has worked so hard to live responsibly, we hate to see her past sins thwart her second chance at motherhood. She's already lost Isaiah once; could her spirit bear losing him again?

There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions, but movies must end and filmmakers often feel a responsibility to leave viewers something on which they can hang their heart. And here's where Losing Isaiah veers slightly off course. Its ending, while admirable and satisfying, is too pat, too tidy, and ultimately too idealistic for us to swallow. Real situations are rarely resolved so amicably, and though the film leaves us with a warm glow, it's tough to shake the impression that Gyllenhaal and crew copped out.

Still, the story's depth, intelligent presentation and the beautifully shaded performances of Lange and Berry overshadow the vanilla-flavored denouement. Berry offers a taste of the dramatic heights she would achieve with Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and Monster's Ball, as she immerses herself in Khaila, bravely attacking her faults and clinging to many of them, even after the character's transformation. Lange seems a bit mannered at first, but soon relaxes and files a natural, heartbreaking portrayal, brutally displaying raw panic over the prospect of losing Isaiah and bitter frustration and helplessness over the legal loopholes that allow the case to proceed.

In the end, Losing Isaiah is about losing and winning, giving and taking, and finding the middle ground we all seek to harmoniously coexist. As we watch the custody battle unfold, it's easy to imagine hundreds of similar cases, and we can only hope those children are loved as deeply and valued as strongly as Isaiah.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Paramount has produced another first-rate anamorphic transfer, filled with bright colors, exceptional clarity and just enough grain to add appropriate warmth to this human drama. Fleshtones and shadow detail are solid, and no edge enhancement mars the presentation. The print is also free of any noticeable defects, with speckles and grit almost totally absent.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 mix naturally favors the front channels in this dialogue-driven film, but the audio remains clean and full throughout. Ambient effects crop up occasionally, providing subtle, unobtrusive surround sound, and conversations are always clear and comprehendible. A Dolby Pro-Logic track is also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: True to Paramount form, no extras—not even trailers—are included on this catalogue title. Hearing from Lange, Berry, and director Gyllenhaal would have been enlightening, but no such luck.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Far from the garden-variety child custody film, Losing Isaiah raises relevant, hot-button issues and attacks them with refreshing intelligence and candor. Excellent performances from Jessica Lange, Halle Berry, and a fine supporting cast, as well as a top-notch transfer and pleasing audio, enhance this emotional (but not heavy-handed) drama. Recommended.


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