When I was faced with an unplanned pregnancy, my mind became flooded with past images and associations of adoption. Most of these images did not originate from my life directly, but more so from films and other media coverage of adoption stories I'd heard throughout my life.
Film and television can be powerful tools to enlightenment and education, and they can be the means to indulgent escapes into pure entertainment. I have always been attracted to films for both purposes. Moreover, they helped inspire me to choose adoption in dealing with my situation. Since the adoption, films such as "Secrets and Lies" and "Stepmom" have continued to inspire me.
However, adoption just shouldn't be used as a central theme for films primarily intended to entertain. The 2003 comedy movie Elf did use adoption as a theme, but it was not the central idea, and it was not trivialized or treated irresponsibly. With its shadowy past, transforming present, and uncertain future, adoption requires conscientious treatment, and all members of the triad should be respected.
Samantha, starring Martha Plimpton, is one such story of adoption that I would categorize as irresponsible entertainment. Martha Plimpton plays Samantha, the 21-year-old daughter of parents who have just informed her that she was adopted. The movie actually begins with the romanticized, proverbial "baby basket left on the doorstep," and cuts to the 21st birthday party at which she learns of her adoption.
Samantha immediately locks herself in her room and starts to question her existence, beginning her retrospective look on life by saying, "I always suspected I was different."
She feels distanced from her adoptive parents, refusing to call them "Mom" and "Dad," and begins to fantasize about her birth parents. She leaves home, and continues to act in ways she has been described as behaving throughout her life: "different," "rebellious," and "just plain odd."
As a child, she conducted imaginary symphonies from the rooftop, played Houdini by launching herself to the bottom of the pool in a locked chest, and periodically ran electrical currents into her gold fish tank. Now, she quits school, gets a job delivering pizzas, and changes her name every few days. In a final act that sends her parents and friends over the edge, Samantha goes on television to say she is looking for her birth parents • because (she claims falsely) she is dying.
All children perform seemingly random and bizarre acts. Even if this is supposed to represent "adopted child syndrome," it is done in a way that is impossible to take seriously. A little humor would be welcome in any case, but screwball antics in the style of Wile E. Coyote don't fit. This isn't about catching the Roadrunner, it's about discovering who you really are.
There were brief flashes in the film that touched upon common themes in adoption. It was almost as if Samantha shared the feelings that many adopted adults share: searching desperately for your identity; feeling like you have no past, and therefore no future; feeling like something must be wrong with you, or else you would not have been abandoned or given away; going to family search session to help you find your birth family, because you need to fill in the missing pieces of your self.
Samantha's final antic • claiming that she has to find her birth parents because she is dying • is the last straw for most of the people in her life. Her parents get angry, her teacher tells her to come to class or fail, and her friend kicks her out of his apartment. She ends up where she supposedly began: back on her parents' front doorstep.
Samantha makes up with her parents and gives up the search for her birth family. On her last night in her friend's apartment, she finally finds the clue that will lead to her birth family: her infant hospital bracelet, complete with her birth name and the name of the hospital where she was born.
In an extremely unrealistic turn of events, Samantha visits the town's hall of records and is handed her original birth certificate. Apparently, the fact of how difficult it usually is for adoptees to be allowed such information does not make a good story. The process is so long and complicated for some, however, that it could be a movie in itself.
When Samantha rings the doorbell at her birth parents' house, she introduces herself using the name on her original birth certificate. The forty-something, obviously middle-class woman blinks a few times, says, "Oh yes, come on in," and yells upstairs, "Honey, come on down, you'll never guess who's here."
The couple sits on a couch across from Samantha and politely asks what they can do for her. Samantha cuts to the chase and asks the tough question: "Why did you abandon me?" They tell her that they simply never planned to have children, so when she came along, they didn't think it would be appropriate to keep her. They met a nice couple at a weekend camping event once, and decided to leave her with them.
The conversation that followed was so ridiculous, I thought that Samantha was having another one of her goofy, melodramatic fantasies. The birth parents are portrayed as self-absorbed and only mildly interested in Samantha's life. When they find out they put her on the wrong doorstep, that it was actually that "nice couple's" neighbors who raised her, they shrug and say, "Oh, well . . . whatever." They go on and on about themselves, and even rave about the basket that they left Samantha in. "You know," her birth mother says, "I once had a whole turkey in that basket!"
When Samantha leaves, she sits outside the house and thinks about what just happened. Having found her birth parents and filling in some of the blanks, she doesn't seem to feel any better. When she hears music coming from the house, she goes back, and she sees the couple playing their instruments together in a beautiful, classical melody. Finally, an answer to one of her questions • she did inherit her musical ability.
The film goes on to show Samantha and her parents happily living their lives together once again, and how proud her parents are of the musical performance she gives at the end.
Such a movie as this is entertaining, but lacks the conscientiousness that is needed in order to deal with a main theme of adoption. If I were facing an unplanned pregnancy after seeing this film, it would not be a positive influence on me. I can only hope that this stereotypical and highly simplified story is viewed with as much incredulity and recognition for what it is: silly and irresponsible entertainment.