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THE RECIPE for "Powder" doesn't seem complicated: throw some "Rain Man" into a bowl. Fold in "Forrest Gump," "E. T.," "Nell," and a pinch of "Edward Scissorhands" (not nearly enough for my taste but that's another story).

Sprinkle a dash of the very real Michael Jackson. Then half-bake.

It's about an albino teen-age boy found deserted in a basement when his last surviving grandparent dies. He's tall, hairless, painfully gawky and has to wear a hat and shades to shield him from the sun. He is, it seems, pure energy.

When he ambles past a line of smalltown police cars, horns and sirens go off and windshield wipers flap away. And his IQ is off the charts.

Martyrdom out in the world ensues and a little Spielbergian cosmic resurrection at the close.

It's an interesting film but not a tenth as interesting as the controversy that suddenly grew up around it.

On Wednesday, news organizations everywhere started reporting the ugly fact that its writer-director, Victor Salva, was once arrested for having oral sex with a 12-year-old boy he'd met while making a lesser film.

He pled guilty and served 15 months in jail. His victim -- now 20 -- is leading demonstrations against Salva at movie premieres and says that Disney should never have allowed Salva to make it.
Disney says it only became aware of Salva's past in midproduction.

You can bet it's the public image scrape that people all over Hollywood have figured for a while Disney might get into.

Months ago, a Los Angeles magazine called Buzz ran a chortling cover story about Disney's apparent unusual corporate benevolence toward gays in its ranks and productions. Disney Comes Out of the Closet was the tagline.

Now that Salva's grim little tale is out of the closet, how are people in theaters supposed to react to the scene when Jeff Goldblum, as a flip, paternally sympathetic science teacher, tells "Powder" how badly he needs human contact and lays a comforting and long, long, lingering hand on his hairless head? How are they supposed to react when Powder (Sean Patrick Flanery) furtively walks into a gym and casts long, long, private yearning glances at a muscular young boy as he undresses slowly in the bathroom?

The number of mass media that are good judges of moral character isn't particularly large.

In a competitive swoop, a lot of them do dicey and even ethically repellent things and embrace people and projects long after private misgivings have swamped people all over the place.

Still, if every person involved in every movie had to be morally pristine, Hollywood would turn into Fenders, Colo., overnight. Movie production would shut down. Besides, Salva did his time.
I wouldn't want to have a bologna sandwich and a beer with him, but I'm willing to believe he could make a good film.

A secret agenda of self-justification, in his case, isn't pretty but as Sigmund Freud might have said, sometimes a movie is only a movie.

The big, big trouble here is Disney's family rep. If this came from, say, Paramount or Warner, the reportage of the yuck factor wouldn't be nearly as huge.

You can't run a day care center and hire child molesters any more than you can be in the brain surgery business and hire butchers or be in the credibility business and hire lying psychos.
A sticky wicket, as the Brits say. Very sticky.

Meanwhile, back at the movies, "Powder" is pretty good in its way.

It's hard to watch it without thinking of a dozen ways it could have been better (my grown daughter thought it should have been in black and white; I thought the big special effect of the finale should have been a lot less cheesy).

But then that's a sign that its fable of stressed innocence has, in some way, taken hold.

When "Powder" goes to high school, the predictable stuff happens. Kids say, "You look like the vampire from outer space.

They kick you out of cancer camp or something?" He answers it all by telekinesis tricks and sucking up all the energy from the Jacob's Ladder in science class and levitating six feet off the ground. Not a kid to be messed with.

When a harassing sheriff's deputy kills a deer, "Powder" puts one hand on the deputy and one on the deer to conduct their body "electricity," thereby introducing the yahoo deputy to what it feels like to die.

It's a good idea for a scene, but it's not well done.

Mostly, that describes the movie too. A really gutsy one might have had more in common with Samuel Beckett than Steven Spielberg.

But, as pseudo-Spielbergs go, this one is interesting but comes up a little short -- in everything, that is, but controversy.



Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Albino Teen-age boy is made of pure energy. Starring Jeff Goldblum and Mary Steenburgen. Written and directed by Victor Salva. Rated PG-13 opening today in area movie Theaters.

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