Before people get themselves all in a tizzy over my review of Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, I want to clarify something about the way I look at films. The best movies are timeless. Casablanca is as powerful today as it was 70 years ago. The same thing can be said for The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, or Rebel Without a Cause (obviously with different amounts of time involved). I’m sure there are great films being made today that will be timeless, but I am wise enough to accept that many films I love that seem so relevant now will look silly or naive in 50 years (I doubt I’ll still be writing about movies by the time I’m 73 although I can hope. It’s not that I doubt I’ll still be writing; I just doubt I’ll live that long). Who Are the Debolts? is an inspiring and heartfelt documentary from the late ’70s that seems such a product of its time that I’m afraid I’ll never be able to get the gooey schmaltz of this film out of my TV. I certainly enjoyed the film but it seems so absurdly optimistic and joyful that I can’t help but feel certain elements of it are simply too good to be true and intentionally edited to leave out some uglier truths that assuredly abounded in this film.

The Debolt family, led by Mary and Bob, isn’t your ordinary American family from the 1970’s, though they’d be angry if you told them there was anything they couldn’t do. With Mary’s five children from her first marriage (she was a widow) and one child from Bob’s initial marriage, Mary and Bob Debolt adopted 13 children over the years. Of various races (though primarily Vietnamese orphans from the war) and ages (because they’ve been adopting children for so long), Bob and Mary Debolt took in the kids that no other family wanted. Nearly all of their adopted children suffer from some severe physical handicap or another, whether it’s permanently crippled legs from polio or injuries suffered during the war, blindness, or lacking any limbs whatsoever, these were children that desperately needed love but no one else would give it to them until the Debolts came around. Showing the daily life in the Debolts house when there are still 12 kids living there (the 7 oldest had gotten older and moved out) and the struggles and triumphs of this happy and unique family.

I feel like I have to be the most cynical asshole on the planet to find reasons to criticize this movie which shows two of the most hard-working and loving parents I’ve ever seen. The amount of love in this family’s heart is astounding, and I have nothing but respect for them. It was a struggle as a child when my family opened our home to four foster siblings with no physical defects. I can only imagine how tough it must have been to take in 13 kids who were severely handicapped. And that’s the film’s problem in a nutshell. I have to imagine how tough this was because the film is all about the positive things that happened when this family took in all of these kids. It doesn’t do a very good job of showing how difficult this life must be and just what kinds of sacrifices Mary and Bob had to make in order for this to work out. It just didn’t seem especially realistic. There are moments where you see how rough it is. Watching the young African-American adopted daughter with no arms or legs strap herself into her prosthetic body was heart-breaking as was watching one of their newest children, the blind and crippled J.R., fail to make his way up the stairs, which the family calls “the mountain” because it feels like you climbed a mountain when you finally scale it on your own for the first time. However, too much of the time the movie went out of its way to be sugary-sweet and it lacked any authenticity because of it.

If you’ve ever been part of a family that adopted kids (or were adopted yourself) or you were part of a family that opened itself up to foster care, you should definitely watch Who Are the Debolts? even though the jaded cynic in me has to find flaws in it. It will remind you of just how important it is that we as a society look out for and (most importantly) truly love like our own flesh and blood those who don’t have someone to take care of them. Foster care and adoption are probably the only real ways that I can see myself ever having children because this world sucks too much to voluntarily put someone in it, especially when there are thousands and thousands of kids here in America looking for a nice home that simply can’t find it. It had been a while since I had really dwelt on all of the good that my family was able to do for the foster kids we helped raise, and this movie helped remind me that it was certainly all worth it and that it’s something I want to do when I’m older and have a wife and a secure source of income.

Final Score: B

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