KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Occasionally –- it doesn’t happen often — going to the movies serves our fellow man. Such is the case with an impressive little drama called “Smile.”
The film begins in a rural Chinese village after the abandonment of a newborn. The infant, born with a facial deformity, has been discarded, but found by a kindhearted man who raises her as his own daughter. Across the world, another baby is born on the same day, this one to a life of privilege where she grows up in Malibu, Calif. Though worlds apart, these two girls will affect each others’ lives -– and most likely the lives of those who view this movie.
Writer/director Jeff Kramer wrote the story after he realized that his own teenage daughter had been profoundly affected by her involvement in a humanitarian organization known as Operation Smile. It is a medical organization founded in 1972 to help children around the world born with facial deformities. Their outstanding work has bettered the lives of thousands of children and helped open doors for a westerner to make a movie with complete endorsement by the Chinese government.
“Working in China was challenging,” Kramer said. “China is rooted in decades of separation, but the mutual respect we experienced resulted in relationships that will last a lifetime. Artistic integrity and work ethic was as good as I’ve ever experienced. Everybody was eager to show their best stuff.
“After a brief period of establishing comfort, the Chinese, American and international crew worked without barriers,” Kramer continued. “Even the language differences were overcome through the art of filmmaking. In the small town, Jinjxi, where we shot a good portion of the film, we were treated like family. Local artists were painting pictures of our sets and giving them as gifts.”
The film focuses on a self-centered teen from an affluent Malibu family who is cute and at the top of the social order at her school. Struggling with adolescent issues, including whether or not to have sex with her boyfriend, Katie (Mika Boorem -– “Blue Crush,” “Sleepover”) is beginning to sense that there is more to life than what’s offered by her preferential world. When a favorite teacher presents an opportunity to get involved with a charitable group, she hastily agrees to travel to China as a volunteer, not realizing that the trip will change her life.
Meanwhile, Lin (Yi Ding –- “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Amazing Panda Adventure”) has grown up in a Chinese village protected by her loving adoptive father who learns of the medical organization who might help his daughter. He takes Lin to the far-off big city, but when he is injured in an accident, they are unable to get to the surgeons before they return to America. The father and daughter sadly retreat to their hometown, and Lin’s dream of escape from her self-imposed isolation go unfulfilled.
After arriving in China, Katie becomes overwhelmed by viewing the deformed children in person. It is heartbreaking and more than she can handle emotionally. Her first instinct is to leave for home, but a compassionate nurse (Cheri Oteri -– “Saturday Night Live”) helps the youngster through the initial ordeal and soon Katie begins to see the profound impact of her efforts.
Learning of Lin’s disappointment and the fact that they were born on the same day, Katie sneaks off to find the girl. Katie is changing. Her journey to China has suddenly become selfless. And that is the missing element to life she has searched for: Caring for others brings her purpose and fulfillment.
Writer Jeff Kramer has a gift for succinct dialogue, while his pronounced directing skill seamlessly moves the narrative, giving the audience an engaging story. His adventure/drama quickly becomes involving, offering something for teens and adults alike.
As for the disfigured little ones seen in the film, though the filmmakers do not shirk from their responsibility, they handle the photographing of the afflicted children with taste and discretion. The children are not exploited nor will these scenes frighten off caring but squeamish audience members.
Then there is that something that sets this film apart from most. In this case, both the production company and the filmmakers give audiences an opportunity to help fellow planeteers. A portion of the film’s proceeds will go to Operation Smile. Every time someone sees this movie in theaters, they will help a child. Wow.
Now about the film’s PG-13 rating.
Executive producer Martin O’Neal, a born-again Christian and member of Perkinston (Miss.) Baptist Church, explained why Smile, which is devoid of crudity or abusive language, received a PG-13: “The reason given by the MPAA was that Katie has a decision to make regarding sex. Her boyfriend, played by Eric von Detten, is pressing her to have sex with him. There is some talk on the subject and there is a somewhat brief make-out scene in a truck. There is no nudity of any kind; however, the suggestion of the subject brought the rating.” Also in the film is a mother’s discussion of birth control pills with her daughter. Though some may be concerned with such content, the filmmakers felt the issue needed to be addressed and done so with discretion.
The motivation of O’Neal in his filmmaking becomes apparent as explains the name of his production company -– Dark Forest.
“I wanted to tie my past and present work history, if you will, with my religious beliefs. I am a forester and graduated from Mississippi State in 1992 so I naturally like forest themes. I came up with the Dark Forest name at the same time I was trying to come up with my animated logo for the company,” he recounted. “The logo shows the viewer going through a dark forest. This dark forest represents the world we live in. As the viewer comes upon an opening in the forest we see a single ray of light penetrate the canopy. This light represents God’s revelation, mercy and love for mankind. The light illuminates a single lily. This lily is the ‘Lily of the Valley,’ who is Jesus Christ. So the theme is God shows mercy and love for us through his Son Jesus.”
Smile opens April 8 in Los Angeles and New York then gets a wider release throughout the month.
Phil Boatwright, at [email protected], reviews film from a Christian perspective. For more information concerning Operation Smile’s humanitarian activities, go to www.operationsmile.org.