Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We pay our respects to unconventional families, and the movies that feature them.

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Mask (1985)

Before the Sons Of Anarchy, there were the Turks: the So Cal biker gang whose members displayed fierce, unrelenting loyalty to anybody flying their colors. Including, as it turns out, a meek, physically deformed teenaged boy with an interest in Greek mythology in lieu of motorcycles. That’s the setup of Peter Bogdanovich’s hugely winning, fact-based drama Mask, a film that’s unfortunately more famous for the extra-curricular hijinks around its release than anything that happens inside of it.

Bogdanovich shot the film in 1984, in the summer of Bruce Springsteen, and he wanted the soundtrack to feature tunes by the Boss—the favorite singer of the story’s late subject, Rocky Dennis. But a licensing snafu meant that the director had to substitute songs by the similarly initialed Bob Seger, which was perceived by some as trading down. Leaving aside the fact that The Silver Bullet Band would probably be more palatable to the shit-kicking members of the Turks—led in the film by Sam Elliott’s crinkly-eyed Gar—the Springsteen/Seger stuff is just so much B.S.: Mask is a marvelous movie regardless of what music propels it forward between scenes.

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As beautifully played by Eric Stoltz beneath a welter of Academy-Award-winning makeup, Rocky feels like an absolute outsider—the traditional growing pains of adolescence are compounded by the shame of his appearance (and the very real pains that come with his craniodiaphyseal dysplasia). To compensate, his mother, Rusty (Cher), loves him with an intensity that borders on obsessiveness, and insists to anyone who will listen that he needs to have a normal life—this despite the fact that she acts and dresses like an extra from The Wild Angels.

What Bogdanovich brings to this potentially movie-of-the-week-like material is a wise, wry sense of perspective. Besides not judging Gar, Rusty, and Rocky’s unconventional family unit—or the “extended family” of the Turks—he shows how it is similar to other, more regularly socialized clans. When Rocky falls in love at summer camp with a gorgeous blind girl (Laura Dern), we see how her parents’ wariness and possessiveness is a mirror of Rusty’s; this is a film in which grown-ups simply want the best for their kids, even if they don’t always know how to get it.

Availability: The director’s cut of Mask is available on DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.

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