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With: Anthony Tom, Faith Tom, Joe Tom, Margaret Tom, Susan Tom, Xenia Tom
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Jonathan Karsh
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 83
Date: 01/17/2003

My Flesh and Blood (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Flesh' Wounds

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Susan Tom, a resident of Fairfield, CA, doesn't necessarily look or act like a saint, but perhaps someone ought to make her one. Besides having two birth children of her own by a long departed husband, she has also adopted eleven other children, each and every one of them with some kind of "special need."

Filmmaker Jonathan Karsh's new documentary My Flesh and Blood tells their story. Though he begins with a number of standard-issue "talking head" testimonials, his most powerful footage comes from his fly-on-the-wall approach. The subjects eventually forget all about him and go about their business. Initially, My Flesh and Blood is not a movie that makes the popcorn go down easy. It takes a while to get used to these kids: a burn victim, a child with a horrible skin disease, a girl with no legs, etc. But in no time at all Karsh brings their humanity and personality to light.

Perhaps the most tragic character is Joseph, a bipolar 15 year-old who suffers from a disease that causes his mucus to thicken. Joseph's violent mood swings cause most of the friction in the Tom house and he even threatens to kill someone during the film's opening minutes. More drama comes as we witness mother Tom spending four hours a day bathing 19 year-old Anthony, who suffers from a horrible skin disease that causes his flesh to disintegrate. Even with the bath, the pain Anthony feels is likened to being dragged behind a car and dipped in acid.

The film does not shy away from romance either. Mother Tom places an internet ad for a possible date, but her hopes are not high. The legless girl, 13 year-old Xenia, has perhaps the best chances. With her long hair, good looks and buoyant personality, she lands a date with one of the most popular boys in her school, even if the story doesn't quite turn out the way she hoped. Karsh does a remarkable job of sorting through his footage to make a flowing story, spending proper amounts of time with each of the children, and closing down with a powerful one-two gut-punch of an ending. The filmmaker does his best to avoid melodrama, but does collapse into it from time to time, almost as if by accident. But even so, My Flesh and Blood is one tough film that really works.

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