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Firstborn
(a.k.a. First Born)
(1984)

Director: Michael Apted 
Cast:
Peter Weller, Teri Garr, Christopher Collet, Corey Haim


As I think I said in a review quite some time ago, although each of the billions of people on this earth is a unique person, practically all of us share some of the same desires and needs. Obviously, one of these needs we share is a need for certain sustenance to maintain our bodies - food and water, preferably the kind that is pleasant for the palate. Other needs that practically all of us have include having a place of our own to shelter us from the elements, and to have some sort of income so we can give ourselves the food, water, and shelter that we need. All of that is obvious stuff that I am pretty sure I have discussed before. But I would like to talk about a different kind of need the majority of us have. It is the need to feel like you belong, that you are part of something much bigger and important. Feeling that you belong to society in general is pretty obvious, but another need of belonging I am pretty sure most of us share is the need to be part of a family, to have people in your life that share the same blood that runs in your veins. There are reasons why most of us wish to be connected to such people in our lives. Having relatives means that you have something in common with other people, and that often means there are at least some people in your life you can relate to on one level or another. Having relatives also often means that when times get tough, there are people who are pretty sure to at least give you a shoulder to lean on until the tough times pass. And if times really get tough, meaning that you need something like a blood transfusion or an organ donation, having a relative increases the odds that you can be treated.

There's no doubt about it - having relatives in your life can really help you out. Here's a bonus fact: It's been proven that the more sisters someone has, the less likely they will become a juvenile delinquent. Anyway, I would like to discuss some of the unconventional ways people get relatives of sorts into their lives. One of these ways is adoption, choosing someone who does not share your blood and making them part of your family. But the unconventional way of adding to family that I would really like to discuss is when parents - who are either divorced or widowed - find someone new to love and make them their spouse or live-in partner. I think I have somewhat discussed this before, but I would like to discuss it again. What immediately comes into your mind when you think of children who gain a stepparent, maybe even also gaining a stepsibling? I am sure that you immediately think of the fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella you grew up with, and think of words like wicked and ugly. I have to confess that for many years I went through that way of thinking any time I thought about this subject. But recent events have reshaped my mind. Several years ago, my father became a widower, and lived several years alone. Eventually, he found someone new to share his life, and they now live together in the same house. I was actually relieved when that happened, because I was concerned if something bad should happen to my father alone in that isolated house of his. And several months later, when I met my father's new companion, I found her to be a very nice woman who gave me a lot of handy advice how I could improve my health.

After that experience, I concluded that it's probably safe to say that when a parent finds someone new to love, all the possible "steps" in the relationship usually find themselves getting along well with each other. However, when it comes to fiction - namely motion pictures - more often than not the "steps" have an outright hostile relationship. The reason for this is pretty simple: A movie Firstbornabout a loving relationship has less potential for drama than one concerning a hostile relationship. Also, I think people are more attracted to hostile relationship movies because they can watch these movies and see that their own family looks good in comparison. So when I found Firstborn in a thrift store, I was pretty sure what kind of stepparent movie I was going to get. But it intrigued me all the same due to its cast of Peter Weller (Robocop), Teri Garr (Let It Ride), and Corey Haim (Busted), among others. As well as the fact that famed director Michael Apted (28 Up) directed it. The title figure is a teenager named Jake Livingston (Christopher Collet, Prayer Of The Rollerboys), who lives with his mother Wendy (Garr) and younger brother Brian (Haim). Wendy got a divorce from her husband several years earlier, and ever since then, Jake has become the man of the house. Around the time that Wendy gets word that her ex-husband is about to remarry, she finds and introduces to her boys someone new in her life, a man named Sam (Weller). Jake finds quickly that he does not like Sam, who among several negative things seems to dream and promise more than he actually ends up doing. But Jake's opinion does not matter - Sam quickly moves into the Livingston home, and becomes the new man of the home. Jake and Brian try to accept this new living arrangement, but it doesn't take long for a dark side to Sam's character starts to be revealed to the two boys, ranging from drug use to Sam physically striking the boys. This starts to take a toll on Jake and Brian, and their own mother seems blind to Sam's corrosive behavior as well as its effect on her two sons... and herself.

Having come across several negative reports of Firstborn before actually watching it for myself, I was preparing myself for a negative experience. While the movie does eventually make a big misstep in its narrative (more about that later), I was surprised by how I found how good many of its aspects were. For starters, the acting by all of the members of the cast finds the right note for every character. As the title figure, Christopher Collet does not make his character some sort of superman. We see him throughout struggling with his thoughts and emotions, not just when it comes to the character of Sam. Teenagers are often stuck between being kids and men, and Collet portrays this rocky position very well. Peter Weller, on the other hand, plays a grown up character but also shows he is in a constant struggle, both with his demons and with the new people in his life. His Sam character eventually becomes a despicable figure, but even when the movie reaches that point, Weller gives Sam some calmer periods that show this character is not a completely bad individual. Interestingly, it is not just Collet's and Weller's characters that are struggling - all the major characters are. Well played by Teri Garr, the character of the mother never once shows a moment when she's completely happy - she is lonely, and struggling to raise two sons, and we feel her constant discomfort. And in his motion picture debut, Corey Haim is surprisingly good as the youngest child. His character has to struggle with an imposing older brother, among other challenges, and Haim accurately recreates the tone and behavior of many real life pre-teens in such a position. Sometimes his character's tone is unthinking and arrogant, but that's how a lot of kids his age are like sometimes. (Note: Among the supporting cast are the pre-fame Sarah Jessica Parker as Collet's girlfriend, and Robert Downey Jr. as Collet's best friend, and both future stars manage to show in their brief roles some of the talent that made them famous years later.)

The cast of Firstborn is certainly very talented, and a big reason why most of the movie manages to work well. (As I said in the previous paragraph, more about the movie's misstep later.) But an equally important part of the movie, one that no doubt steered the actors to give those fine performances, is the screenplay by Ron Koslow (who later wrote Running Delilah). For most of the movie, there isn't a false note in any scene. Early on in the movie, we see the two brothers sometimes have major disagreements, but their words and actions in these scenes make you sense that they will be there for the other if something bad were to happen. Their mother is an interesting character. She still has some feelings for her ex-husband, doing things like cleaning up her house as well as her sons before he comes by to take the boys to dinner. When she learns her husband is remarrying, she doesn't do or say much at the moment, but the little we see shows she is devastated. When she soon after has Sam move in, explaining to a concerned friend, "I'm tired of being alone," you can tell she felt inferior being someone with no mate to love. As for Sam, though the two boys can tell he's no good from the start, he doesn't come across as a complete boogeyman right away. He tries at first to win the boys over with such things as barbeques and motorcycles, but eventually he seems to give up on trying to win the boys over. Which isn't surprising, because in every other aspect of his life - losing his apartment, unable to fulfil his plans to open a restaurant - he seems to have given up as well. He's a loser, though one who is much more plausible than you usually get in a movie.

Until Firstborn gets to that major misstep (I'll get to that in a few seconds), just about everything in the movie feels exactly like real life. About the only flaw before that point is that the girlfriend and best friend of Collet's character eventually disappear and are never mentioned again, which makes me wonder if the original cut of the movie gave them more to do. But even if that were the case and any cut footage restored, there is that big misstep I mentioned earlier, a misstep that almost sunk the movie for me. Up until the eighty or so minute mark of the movie, Firstborn had been an absorbing and dead serious look at a newly formed family with all of the family members struggling in believable ways. Then around that eighty minute mark, the movie makes a major change in its tone. Believe it or not, the remainder of the movie turns into a horror movie of sorts, making the problem of the Sam character one that was resolved in a way found in later movies such as The Stepfather and Domestic Disturbance. Out of nowhere, action and violence is injected into this serious story. While I could accept the horror/action endings of those other two movies - which were designed to be creepy movies right from their beginnings - I could not believe it coming from a movie that earlier was shaping up to be a serious and thought-provoking look at a newly formed family with a seriously (but believably) diseased family member. This horror/action ending feels way out of place. Who is to blame for this wrongheaded ending? One might blame the screenwriter, but I doubt it since the first eighty minutes felt so real and were thought-provoking. My theory is that the screenplay originally did have a realistic ending, but Paramount Pictures somewhere along the line told screenwriter Koslow to rewrite the ending to something that would quench the supposed bloodlust audiences have. But to me, this ending almost ruined the movie for me, and I suspect you might be greatly disappointed by this ending as well. Still, this one hundred minute long movie has eighty very good minutes before this terrible ending. Since eighty minutes is the length of some movies, I guess there is enough in the movie to make it worth watching. But when you sit down to watch it, wait until the movie reaches the eighty minute mark, press "stop" on your remote, and imagine what would happen next. I am sure that whatever ending you think of would be a lot better than the actual ending of this movie.

(Posted October 31, 2016)

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See also: Kenny & Company, Local Boys, Skeletons

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