This story has been recycled a few times: parents who are longing for another child and also to do good in the world — no, not Angelina and Brad — adopt an older, unwanted orphan from another country — in this case, Russia — and bring her home to the good life in America. Where everything starts to go wrong. Where only one of the parents notices that the orphan is not everything s/he seems. Where the parent who attempts to warn others that something is not quite right with the new family member is dismissed as neurotic or overly stressed or… whatever… so no one believes the warnings.
Though at first glance the story in the 2009 film Orphan might seem a bit trite, the mesmerizing performance of Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther overcomes any of the film’s predictable weaknesses. Not unreasonably, however, some adoptive parents and adoption agencies objected to yet another film displaying orphans, especially older ones or children from eastern European countries, as dangerous or seriously flawed. But Orphan puts a totally surprising spin on this orphan-who-goes-bad tale so that it becomes an unexpectedly shocking horror film.
Why do parents Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard), who already have two children, want yet another child after Kate has a miscarriage? The movie doesn’t make the couple’s longing for more children clear, though it does paint Kate and John with some typical clichés: Kate is a recovering alcoholic who is inexplicably devastated by the miscarriage, John is über-career-oriented and doesn’t seem to notice how unhappy Kate is, so the miscarriage has strained their marriage and they think another child will somehow heal it.
Their two children already seem like quite a handful for parents to handle:
Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) tends to do some unpleasant things with homemade weapons,
and Max (Aryana Engineer) cannot speak so must communicate with sign language.
Rather than wait till Kate is healed, physically and emotionally, from the miscarriage, Kate and John want another child right now. To fix their disintegrating marriage and expand their too-small family, Kate and John visit a local orphanage. There, under the watchful eye of Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), who warns that Esther is “very mature for her age,” Kate and John become enamored of Esther (Isabelle Furhman), who seems just too-too-good to be true.
Because, of course, Esther is too good to be true.
As soon as Kate and John get their new daughter home, there are some problems. Though Max immediately embraces her new sister, Daniel is perturbed by Esther. Whether his is already feeling neglected or he fears two sisters will be too much for any boy in any one household to handle is not clear, but Daniel is less than welcoming.
In any event, Esther immediately shows some signs of being… well, more than “very mature.” She shows signs of being… strange. Like wanting to wear clothes to school that are entirely inappropriate for her age and way inappropriate for grammar school, or wanting to wear makeup that would make the average street-walking prostitute look au naturel. Esther gets really very perturbed when things don’t go her way, relly upset when other children don’t immediately accept her, or really angry and violent when… well, I’m sure you already know all this part of the story.
By the time things start to go really wrong with Esther and Mother Kate gets concerned, no one else wants to listen to her. After all, she’s a recovering alcoholic and a grieving mother and…
And that’s about where the clichés in the film end.
Because once things start to really go wrong, once Esther begins to get really scary, Orphan becomes an unexpected horror film with a unique twist. No matter what you imagine is the reason behind Esther’s unpleasant and increasingly atrocious behavior, I doubt you will figure out the real reason this orphan is very angry and wicked. And I doubt you will figure out what she really wants from her adopted family.
Though the reviews are mixed, Orphan was a prize-winner in several Independent Film Festivals, and Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther was virtually universally acclaimed. Some critics compared Fuhrman’s performance as Esther to that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, both of which are horror classics.