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Bringing an adopted child into an established family can be a challenge. There’s the chance the adopted child won’t fit in with the other children, or just isn’t comfortable in the new home. Then there’s the off chance that the orphan is a psychopathic manipulator. Ah, the gentle hazards of adoption.

Looking to add to the “disturbed child” canon, Orphan tells of John (Peter Sarsgaard), Kate (Vera Farmiga), and their seemingly normal family as they look to adopt a child in the wake of a still-birth Kate suffered roughly a year before. Unfortunately for them, they adopt the wise-beyond-her-years but placidly eccentric Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who turns out to be the one kind of different the sometimes-different-is-good parents are not okay with.

Once at home with the family, Esther begins a campaign of divisive manipulation that seems to be aimed at making her the center of the household at the expense of Kate and the other children. A good alternate title would be The Hand That Rocks Mommy.

The movie opens with a nightmare sequence from Kate that gets right to her lingering anguish and helplessness regarding the stillbirth of the daughter she was looking forward to. The sequence, only about three minutes long, is absolutely horrifying. Here the director uses sound, interesting camera distortion and disturbing imagery to create something that may well rattle many people to their core. It’s unfortunate, in a perverse sort of way, that nothing else in the movie can come close to eliciting the same response.

There is a solid cast working to the benefit of this movie. Vera Farmiga plays the notes of a mother agonized by the damage her past as an alcoholic has done to her family (daughter Max almost drowned while she was passed-out) without letting it overpower her entire being. Sarsgaard also serves well to slowly show the cracks in the seemingly perfect family without forcing us to take sides.

The standout performances come from the little girls. Aryana Engineer is adorable as Max, the family’s deaf daughter who is taken with Esther and quickly ends up over her head. Isabelle Fuhrman’s portrayal of Esther is the ultra-ironic bright point of the movie. She is completely endearing when we first meet her, the perfect mix of eccentric little-girl habits, freckled smiles, and contrite gratitude, all delivered with a faint Russian accent.

The turn becomes all the more impressive when she begins channeling the spirit of a Russian gangster, threatening to castrate little boys and gently pitting husband against wife. While you may find the character and actions of Esther more infuriating than horrifying, there’s no denying the quality of the performance.

There are two ways to play a movie like this. You could keep things close to the vest, playing up the mother’s paranoia and keeping the particulars hidden, creating doubt in the viewer as to what is actually going on. Or you could lay your cards on the table and reveal the whole game to the audience. Orphan goes with the latter option, which makes the movie less about whether or not Esther is evil and more about just how far she’s willing to go and when the other characters will catch on.

The catching on becomes a somewhat troubling sticking point for the audience. While Kate’s suspicions are triggered early, everyone around her continues to doubt her even in the face of mounting evidence. You feel like Kate could have presented an FBI mug-shot of Esther and be answered only with shaking heads. The willful ignorance that characters hold against Kate, especially by John, eventually crosses the line from plausible deniability of Esther’s actions into something the G. W. Bush administration would be proud of. This is where the movie may have benefitted from hiding some of Esther’s actions or throwing us something that might be confused as a red herring.

After the initial sequence, most all of the scares or fear in the movie come from the standards of false-alarm loud-sound scares or the old, “What’s going to be behind this door? NOTHING!” trick. Hence, the movie’s biggest flaw lies in the fact that it’s a psychological horror movie trying to be something it’s not: scary.

This is just not the kind of story that’s going to have “Boo!” scares, and trying to convince us otherwise is just cheap. Esther may be an adroit manipulator and handy with a hammer and vice, but she’s still only three feet tall. The movie is best served by playing up Esther’s creepiness, instability, and wiliness to do anything, which it does, but those efforts are somewhat distracted by the cheap gooses and tricks.

Orphan is a serviceable enough psychological horror movie that makes an unfortunate effort to be something it’s not. The performances from the actors were so good that during the first half hour, I was actually lamenting the fact that it was going to turn into a horror movie and I wasn’t going to get to see any more of the story about a family dealing with loss and bringing an eccentric orphan into their home.

The movie does have a kind-of twist near the end that was a necessary evil and won’t be going on any “Top Ten Twists” lists any time soon. (You have to give your audience a reason to make it okay to want to see an 8-year-old harmed, after all. Otherwise they’ll just feel dirty afterwards.) I can tell you that, when all is said and done, Orphan at least ends up being a satisfying movie, if nothing else. (And if you too are “satisfied” at the ending of the movie, please tell me how I can explain my happiness with the images of the last scene to my mother, because I don’t think I can manage it on my own.)

Matt Sameck

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