Something of a Catcher in the Rye for the grade-school set, this peculiar Anglo-American production begins as the lighthearted story of a precocious Californian exploring a new life in the UK, then steadily darkens until becoming the harrowing character study of a young man losing his grip on reality. Among the film’s many admirable elements are a host of sensitive performances, a witty script by Reginald Rose, and a willingness to follow the subject matter into grim terrain. For those who are okay with offbeat tonal shifts, Baxter! will seem insightful, serious, and touching. For others, the movie will seem confused and depressing. Yet nearly any viewer could find at least one thing to like here, whether it’s Geoffrey Unsworth’s stately photography, Patricia Neal’s sharp work as a speech therapist, or young Scott Jacoby’s impressive performance in the leading role.
When the picture begins, bitter and self-absorbed divorcée Mrs. Baxter (Lynn Carlin) relocates to England with her son, Roger (Jacoby). He’s charming and imaginative and smart, but he has a glaring speech impediment because he replaces every “R” with “W.” As a result, he can’t even say his own name without embarrassment. Nonetheless, Roger strikes up friendships with kids at his new school, and also with Chris Bentley (Britt Ekland), a beautiful young woman who lives upstairs in the same apartment building. Eventually, Chris invites Roger on getaways with her French boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and they become surrogate parents for the boy while Mrs. Baxter preoccupies herself with dating, hobbies, self-pity, and excessive drinking. Also central to Roger’s life is Dr. Roberta Clemm (Neal), who recognizes that Roger’s difficulty with speaking is symptomatic of deeper problems. As the movie progresses, Mrs. Baxter’s parenting becomes abusive, pushing her son deeper into the hiding place of his troubled mind.
It’s always painful to watch stories about parents damaging their children, and Baxter! employs the familiar balm of a heroic adult endeavoring to rescue an endangered youth. From a structural perspective, there’s nothing new about this picture. Furthermore, the movie’s flow has a herky-jerky quality, with some scenes skewing way too gloomy while others are so frivolous as to be silly. (Try to avoid cringing when Cassel, Ekland, and Jacoby sing a musical number together.) However, the best stuff in Baxter! is quite respectable, and the way the film spins from giddy to sober to terrifying almost works. If nothing else, the filmmakers deserve ample credit for presenting a fully dimensional juvenile character. Even when the narrative bumps, the sense that we’re seeing the world through the protagonist’s unique prism never wavers.