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My Flesh and Blood

(2003) *** 1/2 Unrated
83 min. Strand Releasing. Director: Jonathan Karsh. Cast: Susan Tom.

Fairfield, California mother admits that her favorite book as a child was Cheaper by the Dozen, but only a supreme faith in humanity can explain the love and patience this mother of thirteen children (eleven of whom she adopted) shows in Jonathan Karsh's documentary My Flesh and Blood. Tom's children are riddled with special needs, and the adoptions clearly followed an evolution of sympathetic design. Eight-year-old Faith regularly endures plastic surgery to mitigate horrible burns from infancy. 19-year-old Anthony suffers, profoundly, from a mortally degenerative skin disease called Epidermolysis Bullosa. 15-year-old Joe likewise faces life-threatening respiratory difficuty from his cystic fibrosis. My Flesh and Blood is remarkable not only for its plain, shattering depiction of some of life's most strenuous challenges, but also for its quiet insights into the emotional makeup necessary to cope with physical and emotional suffering on a daily basis.

Tom, who's in her mid-fifties, is justly proud: of her brood, of her tenacious love for her children, even of her own plus-sized weight. Most audiences--disoriented by Tom's sacrifice--will immediately begin to look for reasons to denigrate or at least explain her unusual lifestyle choice. Yes, she lives on the children's Supplemental Security Income checks, but so does the family, and the heartbreaking medical concerns of some of the kids hardly spell luxury for Tom. Yes, Tom can be righteous in pursuing her children's needs, but there's nothing wrong with that if you're right (if anything, Tom is outwardly forgiving to Joe's mother, who passed off all of her children to foster homes). Quickly, Karsh makes apparent--merely by recording what he sees--that Tom is a home-grown Mother Theresa serving unique and unwanted children and receiving only spirit in return.

A through-line of the film is mental health, taxed to its limits. Among the underage children, Joe is the most outwardly healthy, his disease betrayed only by a mucousy lisp. But in a family like this, apparent normalcy makes Joe the odd one out. With his moodiness exacerbated by ADD, Joe swings from outpourings of love toward Tom to vile-spitting expressions of hateful discrimnation toward his adoptive siblings. Dreaming, hopelessly, of escape to his birth mother, Joe seems like a time-bomb ready to detonate. Amidst all of this, Tom's 18-year-old daughter Margaret (long divested of her childhood epilepsy) grimly contains her stress as her mother's only fully able day-to-day helper, until a nervous breakdown Tom isn't immediately ready to field.

Most surprisingly, My Flesh and Blood isn't a depressing documentary. Thirteen-year-old Xenia, born without legs, dares to do just about anything, and not-so-coyly pursues a nice boy on whom she has a crush. Faith smiles through her scarred flesh, certain that her life will only continue to improve despite evidence to the contrary. Despite a handful of rattingly bleak moments, the film serves mostly as a much-needed reminder that physically challenged people deserve--and often claim--as "normal" a life as everyone else.

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