Orphan (2009)

I’ve often been told that there is no such thing as good child acting. When people bring up this notion to me, I point them in the direction of one movie. That movie is Orphan, which stars Isabelle Fuhrman. Fuhrman absolutely makes this movie, and without her excellent performance, the movie likely could have fallen apart.

Orphan tells the story of one family, and in particular, the parents. John and Kate (get it?) have recently failed to have a successful birth; the baby died inside the mother’s womb. Unhappy with this result, they decide to adopt an older child, hoping to give their love to someone who really could use it.

At the Orphanage, they meet Esther (Fuhrman). She’s nine years old, but already far more mature than the other children. She and John (Peter Sarsgaard) have an instant connection, and she ends up being the child that the couple decides to adopt. “Where’d they get her from, the retard camp?” This is a question that a child asks of her when Esther first arrives at school. Despite being rather intelligent, the way Esther dresses apparently bugs some children. Don’t worry though, this person will receive their just desserts.

As we find out (before the family does, I might add), Esther isn’t just an intelligent little girl. She is violent, manipulative and actually quite scary. She has the ability to taunt, torment and even murder people who she singles out. She’s also polite as can be to those that she holds no grudge against, like the shrink that John and Kate end up taking her to. The shrink finds nothing wrong, but instead questions the relationship between Esther and Kate (Vera Farmiga).

Kate has her own problems. She is a former alcoholic, and is always on her toes with the people around her. She never feels like she can be trusted, especially after a certain incident near a pond where one of her children almost died. John also has his own set of problems, cheating on Kate 10 years past, but only filling her in 2 years ago. These problems, combined with a series of “accidents” that the couple believe may or may not involve their newest child, result in a rocky relationship between the two. By the end of the film, we hope that all of these issues are resolved, and that the couple will end up living a happy life together.

Orphan is, at its core, more of a slasher film than anything else. In this case, the thing hiding in the closet is a 9-year-old girl, and the victims are everyone she doesn’t like, She is given reasons for not liking them as well, switching up the “kill everyone” mentality to one of “kill everyone who upsets you.” This allows us to be slightly more sympathetic towards Esther than classic slasher “monsters” like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, as we actually understand why Esther feels the way she does.

In fact, it’s possible that you will feel more sympathy towards Esther than John or Kate, just because the latter couple don’t make as much of an effort to make you care for them. Kate blames Esther for everything that happens—rightly so, but John doesn’t know it—and she treats Esther poorly, She becomes suspicious way too quickly for his liking, and due to her past alcohol abuse, she doesn’t have his complete trust.

John on the other hand, is unlikable for a different reason. This is in part due to how Sarsgaard plays his character, an almost entirely emotionally inept character, but also due to the way he is written. He is passive towards everything, never really taking a side in any feud. He’s indecisive, and it would definitely have been nice to see him actually take action within the film, instead of relying on other characters to move things along.

Orphan is a really great film—a gem when it comes to these kinds of films.

I mentioned earlier that the film might have fallen apart had Fuhrman’s performance not been outstanding, and I definitely do believe that. Fuhrman is convincing in every possible way, from her near-perfect Russian accent to the way she treats every other character. Her emotional responses are shocking, and some of the things she has to do with the character are surprising, and at times, cringe-worthy.

There are times in Orphan where you will want to turn away. At these times, it is okay to do so—that was the intention. Take, for example, a scene where a character places their arm in a vice and turns the handle until their arm is broken. Taken out of context, that means nothing, I know, but just picture that for a second. What you are picturing is likely similar in terms of what director Jaume Collet-Serra‘s vision is, and he shows it to you in unblinking clarity.

Even more surprising is how much darker the original script is. You’d be surprised at some of the cut content, and while this doesn’t have any real effect on the final product, it is a testament to how disturbing the story both is, and could have been. Also changed from the script was the season the film takes place in. It was originally supposed to take place in the fall, near Halloween. Unfortunately, a large snowfall took place right before filming commenced, and as such, the story was changed to fit a winter setting. I can only imagine how much scarier the film could have been had it involved Halloween.

If there is one knock against Orphan, it is the fact that, for a horror flick, it isn’t all that scary. There is a technique used throughout that falls flat almost every time. There are scenes where you are expecting a jump scene, and then nothing is there. These false jump scenes can work out well if they are used intermittently, but in Orphan, they are used far more frequently than actual jump scenes. The whole premise is frightening though, and it can definitely scare people, especially those who are thinking about adopting a child.

Orphan is a fascinating thriller, one which will hopefully convince you that there is such a thing as good child acting. Isabelle Fuhrman is excellent in her role as Esther, and brings the character to life. Her character, as well as the characters of her adoptive parents, is interesting, and there are enough issues with each one to make you care for them. You hope to see them make it through to the end, even if you don’t see a way that they will. Orphan is a really great film, a gem when it comes to these kinds of films, and I recommend it to fans of horror, thrillers and good acting.

Conclusion: Orphan is a great horror movie with a fantastic lead performance.

Recommendation: You want a creepy kid movie? Here’s a great creepy kid movie!

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