★★★ / ★★★★
Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” tells the story of Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), a teenager with a rare bone disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia. The condition is characterized by calcium depositing at an abnormal rate in one’s skull which results in the thickening of the cranium thus affecting facial features. Though Rocky’s face is enlarged—people tell him to take off his mask and some refer to him as Frankenstein’s monster—he is just like any other boy with hopes and dreams for the future which involves travel, completing his collection of baseball cards, and girls.
It is the correct decision to allow the subject’s face to be placed front and center not even a minute into the picture. Another avenue would have hidden it for some time which would have given the impression that the story is a horror film. Instead, the camera treats the subject like a normal person with an abnormal condition and we are fascinated by him. We wonder right away if he has the confidence to get out of the house and face the world, especially people’s judging looks which can be quite cruel.
I liked the details of the character’s face. We see freckles, wrinkles, areas where bones are especially enlarged, and, yes, even pimples. I appreciated that the make-up artists took the time to make it as face-like as possible which includes the flaws. Rocky’s teratoid face may be off-putting for many so the performer must put in the extra effort to make us look beyond the appearance. The face, either the mask or the heavy make-up or both, is very limiting and so Stoltz draws us in with his eyes, his voice, and vibrant body language.
There are expected scenes in which the subject is teased for the way he looks. It is necessary, but there are fresh choices here. Notice the students at school. It is interesting that those who give Rocky a hard time are not necessarily people who are typically good-looking. In fact, he is friends with them. It is the so-called ordinary-looking teenagers who are compelled to make remarks. In a way, it adds another layer to the picture. We wonder if they, too, have been teased because of the way they look. Rocky being new to the school, they have a clear target and so they seize the opportunity to feel good about themselves.
Prejudice that hurts most is the kind where people look at him in such a way but remain silent. When words are involved, it is, in a way, easier to retaliate because we have a somewhat definite idea about what the other person is thinking. But silence leaves a lot to interpretation. It is wiser to walk away and yet the moment’s venom lingers.
And what is to be said about Cher as Rocky’s drug-addicted mother? She is wonderful. She has a knack for making each line pop, not a tone wasted between pauses. There is a strength to Rusty that goes beyond hanging out with bikers. It is in the way she carries herself and how she is always ready to defend her son fiercely. Yet there is a vulnerability to her that cannot be overlooked. Her weakness is her strength; since she feels she has to be strong for her and her son, she turns to drugs for temporary escape. Then it starts to become a real problem, one that is destructive for both the mother and son.
“Mask,” based on the real-life Roy L. “Rocky” Dennis, leaves a lot of threads unsolved. I admired it because it is about people first and the disease is tertiary. There are a handful of saccharine moments that got under my skin like shots of teachers winking at Rocky to convince him—and us—that they are on his side, but they are not distracting enough to sabotage what the filmmakers hope to communicate.