A tale told by a madman…

This is one of those movies that barely appeared and promptly vanished in spite of a cast of excellent actors and a so-so premise beautifully worked out. Note that I said actors, not stars. A handful of less than stellar initial reviews probably also torpedoed the production upon release, which is a pity: god knows that far, far worse productions endure a much more scathing reception, and yet endure, spread all over the movie-publicity complex and your neighborhood Cineplex for months.

Aaron Eckhard plays Zack, a successful psychiatrist who is haunted by the suicide death of his troubled father when he was a small boy. His father, (Nick Nolte, seen in flashbacks or vintage film and home movie footage) was the writer of a fabulously successful childrens’ classic about a wonderful magical land called “Neverwas” which he wrote for his son, making him the hero-adventurer. As an adult, Zack takes a job at the mental hospital where his father was confined for a brief period, hoping to find out why his father killed himself. Was it a failure of his doctor, of the hospital itself? It is hinted that Zack became a psychiatrist as a way of trying to fix that which was broken, in his father, and in himself, and others.

The clinic is a gorgeous but dilapidated, neo-classical building, near a perfect small New England town; the whole country around the clinic and town is a wildly scenic rural area spangled with fall colors. The whole look of the place is stunningly beautiful, barely and believably a half-step from the enchanted world that Zack’s father created a quarter century before. He meets up with a childhood pal, Ally (Brittany Murphy) who seems to have never quite outgrown her own longing to visit “Neverwas”, or her own attraction towards Zack. Among his patients in the hospital is the schizophrenic Gabriel Finch, played by the magnificent Ian McKellon. Gradually, Zack realized, as Gabriel opens up to him, that Gabriel and his father were friends… and that Gabriel thinks himself as the imprisoned King of “Neverwas”.

“Neverwas” is in fact as much Gabriel’s creation as it was his fathers… and it is as real to him as the forests beyond the boundaries of the hospital. The rest of the story is concerned with how Zack comes to terms with death, guilt, responsibility and the knowledge that sometimes there is nothing you can do, to help the ones you love… and sometimes you can. Ally lets go of her own childish dependence on the enchanted world… although they both do briefly set foot in it. The sequence towards the end of the movie, where she and Zack follow Gabriel into the woods, is beautifully done. With a growing sense of wonder, they identify many of the magical landmarks and seem almost on the verge actually stepping into the mythical “Neverwas”… but as it is subtly conveyed, they are still in the very real world. Only Gabriel, the schizophrenic can live in the world that he has created and maintained in his own mind for most of his life.

This is not a movie for children, although it may appear at first glance to resemble such fare as “The Bridge to Terabithia”. It is more suited for teenagers and adults. While not one of those great unsung movies, it is still better worth the time than many other movie offerings taking up DVD shelf space, just for McKellen’s star turn alone.

More about the cast here. “Neverwas” is available on July 3 and may be ordered from Amazon.com.

Sgt. Mom is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas, who posts at The Daily Brief. More about her own writing is at www.celiahayes.com.

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