A Look Back: Mask (Not the One with Jim Carrey)

In the memoir “Autobiography of a Face,” a poignant account of how she survived Ewing’s Sarcoma (jaw cancer) as a child, Lucy Grealy describes a time one of her many doctors made a stab at empathy. When she goes in for a consultation on having a bone graft performed, and he notices her dismay at how long and unpleasant the process will be, he proceeds to mention that he himself had bad acne as a teen, and thus (presumably) knows what it’s like to feel self-conscious. Surprisingly, Grealy’s reaction is somewhere along the lines of, “Are you kidding me?”

Beauty, so I heard someone say once, is skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone. This doesn’t help much in adolescence, but of course, we all grow up and realize that other characteristics, such as courage, humor and compassion matter more. That’s the message of countless Hollywood movies, and it’s usually done in an expected way, but “Mask,” starring Eric Stoltz and Cher, does it differently. Playing the real-life teen Roy, “Rocky” Dennis,” who is afflicted with a rare facial affliction called cranio-diaphyseal dysplasia (or its much crueler term of lionitis), Eric’s life isn’t easy, but at least he and his single mom (Cher) can take comfort in knowing that when it comes to courage, humor and compassion, he’s got more than enough.

“Mask,” takes place in the late seventies, and it’s that period where Eric’s school keeps trying to stick him in special education classes, although he is actually quite smart. At home, he finds comfort and companionship with his mom’s biker gang, led by her boyfriend (Sam Elliott). Cher isn’t portrayed as your stereotypical feisty single mom; her character winds up being more complex than that. “Your mom sometimes does the wrong things, but for the right reasons,” Sam tells Eric at one point. And she may be far from perfect, but she’s fiercely protective of her son and determined that he will lead as normal a life as possible. And who isn’t temporarily stunned into silence when she catches someone staring at her son and snaps, “What’s the matter, never seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before?”

Eventually, Eric takes a job as a counselor at a sleepaway summer camp for, as he puts it wryly, “little blind kids.” Fortunately for him, there are all different age groups, and he winds up falling for Laura Dern, who winds up being a kindred spirit as well as beautiful. “Mask” has a sad ending (and the real life story that includes Rocky’s brother is even sadder), but it’s one of those triumph of the human spirit movies that leaves you feeling hopeful anyway. The DVD cover is similar to that of “The Karate Kid” (made around the same time), with Eric’s silhouette against a fiery sunset by the water. Like Ralph Macchio’s character, Eric’s undergoes a trial by fire of a sort and emerges victorious. And trust me, after watching it, even acne will seem a minor matter.

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