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A convincing domestic thriller with top-rank tech and acting credits, 1984's Firstborn mixes the coming-of-age story with the theme of modern divorce. Its bad-case scenario builds to a violent climax that seems not only earned but inevitable. The screenplay by Ron Koslow (Into the Night) sketches a situation so familiar that it will remind most Americans of incidents that have happened at some time in their own extended families.
The show is beautifully directed by Michael Apted, of Coal Miner's Daugher and Gorky Park. Apted's eclectic interests led him both to documentary work (28 Up) and big budget action features (The World is Not Enough, but it is his ease with actors that makes Firstborn such a compelling show.
Divorce has broken up the Livingston family. Wendy (Teri Garr) is still holding out hope that her ex Alan (Richard Brandon) will return, and therefore becomes depressed when she finds out that he's making plans to take a new wife. Against a girlfriend's advice not to rush into a new relationship, Wendy takes up with Sam (Peter Weller), an entrepreneur between jobs. They get along great, but Wendy's boys Jake and and Brian (Christopher Collet & Corey Haim) take an immediate dislike to the prepossessing Sam. He buys their friendship with extravagant gifts, while talking of grandiose plans to make money. High schooler Jake sees through the BS but the needy Wendy can see no wrong in her new man, and allows him to move into the house. Sam has big plans for Wendy to invest in a restaurant. Sam and the boys clash when Wendy throws a party where cocaine is used; Jake becomes convinced that Sam is dealing drugs. But the only way to force the issue out in the open is to provoke Sam into showing his true colors...
In movies about domestic violence, horrendous divorces or home situations where children are abused, only the luckiest of us can feel secure in the knowledge that what we're seeing happens "to other people". Firstborn manages the difficult task of involving us personally in its conflict. The Livingston family is not perfect but it's definitely "nice", a loving home with decent kids that care about each other and their parents. Jake and Brian are not happy when their dad introduces his new girlfriend (Ellen Barber) and they want to be protective of their mother Wendy, who of course is feeling vulnerable and unloved. That's when Sam moves in, literally introducing himself to the boys at breakfast after spending the night with their mom. It's no wonder that things are touchy.
The psychological dynamics involved are completely believable. Jake likes his new gift motorbike but doesn't drop his guard against Sam, who far too quickly seeks an unearned position of authority over the boys. Little Brian gets in trouble at school for fighting, clearly redirecting his hostility toward the unwanted new 'father'. Wendy's unexpected but logical collapse of judgment strikes the film's most disturbing note, especially since actress Teri Garr was previously associated with untroubled, sensible characters. Carried off by the wild sex, attention and affection, Wendy lets her home fall apart, neglects her boys and falls into Sam's flaky plans. She doesn't mind that he brings drugs into the house and turns herself into a genuine cokehead in record time. It gets so bad that when Brian gets in more trouble for fighting, Jake must go to school in her place to plead to Brian's principal to give the boy another chance. The always-adorable Garr is heartbreakingly weak; the coming-of-age content comes in when Jake takes on the responsibility of getting rid of the unwanted intruder. Playing what is actually the central character, Christopher Collet's teenager learns to see things as they are, and does what must be done to save what's left of his family. In his first film, the late Corey Haim is a standout as a believable, non-idealized twelve-year-old.
Peter Weller had been working in film for at least ten years. 1984 was primed to be his breakout year, with this picture and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension . Two years earlier he'd worked in another picture about a messy divorce, Shoot the Moon. Lean and hungry-looking, Weller is terrific as a fast-talker capable of snowing an unstable widow, but who tries too hard to win over her boys. He's also credible as a faux-family man who uses Wendy's house to store a stash of coke for resale. Weller also delivers the explosive violence the script requires; that things don't get worse than they do is rationalized when the other drug dealers describe Sam as an amateur. Firstborn's finish works itself into a fine frenzy, with a tense chase through the Livingston's small town and a bruising confrontation in Wendy's living room.
Firstborn is due for a major rediscovery, if only to allow today's
Olive Film's Blu-ray of Firstborn is a sharp and richly colored HD encoding of Michael Apted's engrossing drama. Most of us caught up with the film on cable television, where it was adapted for a flat screen and looking rather shapeless; the accurate aspect ratio here focuses the action, helping us to better read the acting in the wider shots.
Needing a mention is the contribution of the late cinematographer Ralf Bode, who broke through on Saturday Night Fever and filmed many of Michael Apted's features. Bode is one of several cameramen of the '70s and '80s that pulled Big Studio pictures away from high-key glamour to more natural lighting schemes. Firstborn has a pleasing, unostentatious look.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Firstborn Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.