Dir: Menno Meyjes. US. 2007. 108mins
Well acted if sweetly moralising, Martian Child tells the story of a science fiction writer who adopts an orphaned boy who claims to be from Mars. Based on the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story by genre luminary David Gerrold, the film is an extremely personable, smarter than average family dramedy with just a pint-sized pinch of the is-he-or-isn't-he commotion of 2001's K-Pax, which also centered around the claims of an alleged extraterrestrial.

Butting heads directly with the animated, aggressively marketed Bee Movie, and the following week with Warner Bros.' Fred Claus, not to mention Disney's PG-rated Enchanted looming in the middle-distance, Martian Child will likely have a tough time finding theatrical footing. John Cusack's profile-raising turn in this summer's surprise hit 1408, though, could surely help give box office receipts a slight bump. Ancillary returns should be solid, with stellar word-of-mouth giving this family-friendly title deep inroads with audiences who may not catch it in theaters.

With a film adaptation of his bestselling sci-fi tome Dracobon already in the works, widowed writer David Gordon (Cusack) is feeling some pressure from his nervous agent (Oliver Platt) to deliver a sequel to a publisher desperate for their own 'Harry Potter in space.' David, though, finds his head elsewhere. Ignoring the well-intentioned advice of his sister Liz (Joan Cusack), herself a mother of two, David files paperwork to adopt Dennis (Bobby Coleman), an almost pathologically introverted youngster who keeps insisting he's an alien.

Dennis - who applies slick layers of sunscreen to his skin, and sports a 'weight belt' ringed with batteries, all to keep himself from drifting up and away, he explains - comes to live with David, and rechristens his aging dog with the Martian name 'Flomar.' David, along with his friend Harlee (Amanda Peet), teaches Dennis baseball, and eases his transition to school, all the while trying to strike a balance between indulging Dennis' quirks and slowly socializing him, drawing him out of his shell of defensive construction.

Owing to its literary roots, Martian Child benefits from the fact that all its characters are of above average intelligence, and thus approach problems with at least a small degree of self-awareness. This means many scenes can be played on several levels at one time. The movie tugs at heartstrings, yes, but does so in a manner free from pretense or affectation.

Perhaps deciding them too tough of a sell, the script jettisons the source text's autobiographical elements about a single gay man, recasting David as a widower and playing up his own troubled, misfit adolescent past. Despite the potential for disaster such a tweak invites, the changes are handled not only convincingly but also artfully, since the alienation David felt from his artistic inclinations, pre-career success, remains intact, informing his adult personality.

The only knock on the film - apart from an arguable schmaltz factor - is that David's professional pressures are less convincingly sketched. That they recede into the background for so much of the film is fine until a jarring reentry of slightly heightened tone involving Anjelica Huston's blustery publisher.

That said, Meyjes, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Color Purple who first transitioned behind the camera with 2002's Max, also starring Cusack, has a fantastic touch with actors. He doesn't lean too much on Coleman, who delivers his lines in a prepubescent rasp, to play up Dennis' quirks; for every bit of emoting, there's a matching bit or two of guarded silence or sparse exchange.

Cusack typically injects a certain amount of caginess into almost all his performances, but he eases up on that persona to an admirable and pleasing degree here. The fun interplay with his real-life sister, which underpins a number of scenes, might well be expected, but Cusack has worked with almost all of the other actors with whom he shares significant screen time - Peet, Platt, Huston and Schiff - and that also gives the movie a genuine sense of rootedness.

Then, of course, there's the matter of Cusack's chemistry with Coleman. The pair has a low-key, very believable rapport that isn't born of endless patter. The movie embraces idiosyncrasy and whimsy, recognizing the importance of small actions.

Tech credits are polished all around, with ace production design and Robert Yeoman's crisp, off-center cinematography subtly highlighting reach-for-the-stars wonderment, particularly in a few driving scenes.

Production company
New Line Cinema

US distribution
New Line Cinema

David Kirschner
Corey Sienega
Ed Elbert

Executive producers
Toby Emmerich
Mark Kaufman
Matt Moore
David Gerrold
Mike Drake

Seth E. Bass
Jonathan Tolins

Seth E. Bass & Jonathan Tolins, based on The Martian Child by David Gerrold

Robert Yeoman

Prod design
Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski

Bruce Green

Aaron Zigman

Main cast
John Cusack
Bobby Coleman
Amanda Peet
Oliver Platt
Joan Cusack
Sophie Okonedo
Richard Schiff
Howard Hesseman
Anjelica Huston