I was just a small child, but I clearly remember hearing about the girl known only as “Katie.” She had been kept tied to a potty chair in a filthy back room of her house for most of her thirteen years and was so isolated she could not speak or care for herself in any way. Her story became a national sensation in the early seventies and she was quickly dubbed a modern day “Wild Child” (after the popular François Truffuat film which, coincidentally, had come out just the year before).
This was more than a tragedy perpetrated by a cruel and insane parent, it was the subject of great curiosity among scientists and educators. It wouldn’t be long before an army of linguists, psychologists and others would come around in search of answers and career advancement.
“Mockingbird Don’t Sing,” begins by focusing in depressing, literal detail on the victimization of the little girl, here called Genie (newcomer Tarra Steele). Once she is rescued, the issue becomes how to learn from Genie’s case while also teaching her to speak and preparing her for some kind of a decent life. She is surprisingly charming and pretty considering her lifetime of torture, but she has none of the social controls that prevents you and me from masturbating in public, scratching ourselves bloody or from eating our own vomit
Enter Sandra Lewis (Melissa Erricco), a compassionate and levelheaded linguistics graduate student based on real-life UCLA linguist, Dr. Susan Curtiss. (Only Curtiss cooperated with the making of this film, and it’s fairly obvious that what we’re seeing is her version of events. Wisely, all of the names have been changed.) Lewis is part of a team that also includes self-promoting psychologist Norm Glazer (Joe Regalbuto of “Murphy Brown”) and emotional development specialist Sam York (Michæl Lerner, a long way from “that Barton Fink feeling.”)
While questions are raised at times about Glazer’s motivation and work habits, the real fly in the therapeutic ointment is Sean Young (“Blade Runner”/”No Way Out”) as Judy Bingham, a gifted but spooky special education teacher. Bingham is clearly affectionate toward Genie. On the other hand, she openly crows that she’s going to become as famous as legendary “Miracle Worker” Annie Sullivan while mercilessly attacking every adult in sight. With her bouffant hairdo, she resembles a psychotic Annette Funnicello. (Gee, I wonder what made them think of Sean Young for the part….)
It’s not long before Michæl Lerner’s benign Dr. York is sent packing and the psycho-schoolmarm moves in for squatter’s rights on poor Genie. Nevertheless, the heroic young grad student steps in and the girl’s best interests are reasonably well looked after for a time. However, sloppy work on the part of Glazer (now also her foster parent) eventually causes the project to lose its funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Genie is quickly abandoned by Glazer and returned to her blind mother (compelling Kim Darby, a long, long way from “True Grit”) who has long since lost custody. The film depicts the mother as relatively blameless and loving towards Genie, but she clearly has about two million “issues” of her own. And, somewhere in the background, Sean Young’s evil educator is still lurking.
A lot happens in “Mockingbird Don’t Sing.” In fact, there’s probably enough material for at least three good movies. The problem is that writer Daryl Haney and director Harry Bromley-Davenport never really decide which one they want to make, so they try to make them all. The result is unfocused and often just plain boring . Worse, a cast filled with solid characters actors never connect with each other, frequently playing their scenes as if they’re talking via satellite.
Nevertheless, the movie and the acting quality picks up in the final third when Genie is placed with a family of abusive Bible-thumpers. Even though the movie never explains how such a high-profile case could be so horribly mishandled, at least there’s finally a clear conflict to give the movie some energy. The performances, especially Kim Darby and young Tara Steele, suddenly come alive as well.
Nevertheless, “Mockingbird Don’t Sing” sags badly, especially when compared to far, far better films on similar subjects by Truffuat, Arthur Penn, David Lynch and others. It’s a bit unfair, but coming from a largely exploitation/straight to video background, the problem may be that the filmmakers — who’s best known prior collaboration was “Xtro: Watch the Skies” — were simply out of their depth. Considering that there’s already been a documentary and at least two nonfiction books about this case, “Mockingbird” is probably the worst possible source for learning about this fascinating and important story.
Special note for pop music buffs: The rather listless score for “Mockingbird” is by Mark Hart who, according to his bio, has somehow managed to spend part of the nineties as a member of both Crowded House and Supertramp.