Most people tend to think of Disney as being a company focused on entertainment for families. That’s certainly true, but they also release a lot of films geared for more mature audiences. In the 80’s and 90’s, they created two divisions, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures, for releasing films that were not necessarily what we think of as being “Disney movies.” Heck, since 1986 they’ve released more than a few R rated films. But in 1995, even with a number of R rated films under their belt, the mouse house was probably not prepared for the controversy caused by this little PG-13 film, “Powder.”
The film tells the story of a teenager named Jeremy (Sean Patrick Flannery), aka “Powder.” Why the strange nickname? Well, Jeremy is an albino and has not a follicle of hair on his body. He kind of looks like a scrawny version of the engineers from “Prometheus.” He’s been living with his grandparents since he was born, when his mother died in childbirth and his father rejected him. Now, his grandparents have passed away and he is without a guardian. Unsure what to do, the local sheriff (Lance Henriksen) brings in child psychologist Jesse Caldwell (Mary Steenburgen) to deal with the boy.
Proving that she has no business being a child psychologist, Jesse takes Jeremy to…(ta-da) reform school! Genius, absolutely genius! Of course, the troublemakers who live there waste no time making things tough on Jeremy. They soon get a taste of how unique this young man is, however, when he magnetizes the silverware in the school cafeteria and sends them flying around the room. Yes, there is something strange about this boy.
Eventually, Jesse gets Jeremy enrolled at the local high school where he quickly catches the attention of pretty young co-ed Lindsey (Melissa Lahlitah Crider) and science teacher Mr. Ripley (Jeff Goldblum)…especially after Jeremy becomes a human lightning rod during a class experiment. After some testing, it seems that Jeremy is an off-the-charts genius, as well.
The townsfolk just don’t know what to make of Jeremy, though Jesse and Ripley see him as quite extraordinary…maybe even the next step in human evolution. He doesn’t exactly endear himself to one of the local deputies (Brandon Smith), an avid hunter whom Powder causes to feel the pain of a dying deer he has just shot. It doesn’t help that the guy can zap ya with lightning bolt Thor-style either. Not surprisingly, things just get more and more difficult. Jeremy is desperate to run away, and, unfortunately, his encounters with the local bullies become more dangerous.
“Powder” does have an intriguing premise, I’ll give it that. However, there’s just not much to enjoy here. The characters are all pretty flat. They’re all either ultra enlightened people who see Jeremy’s true beauty or troublemaking uber jerks. Nobody has any real depth or shows any character progression.
Initially, “Powder” reminded me a bit of Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands.” However, Burton’s film is infinitely better. Both deal with a bizarre individual who has spent their entire life hidden away, suddenly thrown into the big bad world. Both characters are somewhat extraordinary, somewhat dangerous. Yet somehow, the king of creepy, Burton, is out creeped big time. There is an unsettling vibe that surrounds “Powder” that you can practically cut with a butter knife. It’s a movie that thinks very highly of itself, yet just leaves the viewer feeling downright icky. This is even before taking into account the controversy I mentioned earlier.
Shortly before “Powder” was released, protests began cropping up. They were initiated by a young man who had been sexually assaulted by the film’s writer director Victor Salva on the set of another movie at the age of 12. Salva did prison time for this crime. Hence the controversy…a film released by Disney had been directed by a convicted child molester. All reports seem to indicate that the mouse was legitimately unaware of this when the film began production…but yeah, you see the problem. With this nasty tidbit in mind, there are various elements of the film that take on an even ickier vibe. One can’t help but wonder if the title character represents how the filmmaker sees himself. See what I mean by “icky?”
All the controversy aside, “Powder” is a film that just tries way too hard. It wants to be powerful and moving, but uses a sledgehammer to do it. If this is the next step in human evolution, I’ll stick to being a lower life form.