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Dangerous Child (2002) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

jack sally abuse brad

Principal social themes: child abuse/spouse abuse, divorce

Hearst Entertainment. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Delta Burke, Ryan Merriman, Vyto Ruginis, Marc Donato, Barclay Hope, Rosemary Dunsmore, Deborah Odell, Jonathan Payne, Asia Viera, Richard Zeppieri. Written by Karen Still-man and Alan Hines; Cinematography by Nikos Evdemon. Edited by Michael Schweitzer. Music by Peter Manning Robinson. Produced by Terry Gould. Directed by Graeme Campbell. Color. 90 minutes.


Dangerous Child is the poignant story of a divorced mother facing a crisis: increasing violence and abuse at the hands of her teenage son. When she finally overcomes her tendency to ignore the problem, she is unable to find help for her particular situation from any social agency. Her former husband intervenes, making matters worse since it was his initial abuse of her that is the root of this problem. Dangerous Child is an extremely potent telefilm that portrays spouse abuse as a generational problem. It also highlights a flaw in the management of social service agencies through their inability to help with a problem outside their main area of concern.


As the film opens, Sally Cambridge (Delta Burke) is being arrested as her ten-year-old son, Leo (Marc Donato), is carried on a stretcher to an ambulance. At the police station, Sally sits in an interrogation room with Detective Mike Green and Virginia Malloy, a state social worker. The mother tries to explain what happened. A lengthy flashback follows, dating back to the sixteenth birthday of Jack (Ryan Merriman), her elder son. Sally, a single parent, finds it increasingly difficult to cope with Jack’s temper. When she tries to talk with him, Jack blasts rap music and paces the room like a caged tiger, finally pushing his mother out. Brad (Vyto Ruginis), her former husband, is abrupt when Sally brings the issue up to him, saying she merely needs to set perimeters for Jack’s behavior and he will conform. Jack is picked up for shoplifting candles at the mall, trying to impress a girl. The police drop the charges, but Jack is banned from the mall. Sally is asked out to dinner by Frank, her first date since the breakup of her marriage. Jack is supposed to stay home and babysit his brother, Leo. Instead, he slips off to a party, where he gets into a fight after seeing his girlfriend kissing another boy. Sally rebukes Jack for sneaking out, and he takes a punch at her, missing and ramming his fist through the window. At the hospital, Jack and Sally pretend it was an accident. Brad shows up and confronts Jack, who insinuates that Frank is responsible. His father explodes and forces Leo and Jack into his car, taking them to his home. Brad actually wants to get permanent custody of his children, but Marcia, his current wife, opposes the idea. Brad relents, bringing Leo and Jack back to their mother the following day, but threatening her he will sue for custody if there is another incident. Leo’s cat is found mysteriously injured, and later Sally overhears Jack crying, apologizing to the cat for hurting her. She decides to seek help through the library. They refer her to various abuse hotlines, but each one passes the buck when she calls, saying they do not deal with parental abuse by children. She visits a shelter, where she is advised to get a court order against her son, a step she considers impossible to take. Jack tries to reform and suggests that his mother invite Frank home for dinner. Later, Jack has another temper fit and attacks his mother. Leo tries to intervene, but Jack shoves him aside, and his brother hits his head on the table as he falls. Sally calls an ambulance and this leads to a reprise of the film’s opening scene. The detective is largely convinced by her statement. He and the social worker take Sally to the hospital, where they intend to question Jack. At first, the boy hesitates, saying his mother was at fault. When Brad confronts him, Jack breaks down and confesses. The boy is arrested and locked up. The next day, a state attorney explains that the assault case will not be dropped. Legally, if one offspring hurts another, the parents can be charged with child abuse. There is one alternative, however. Jack could be registered in a special program. If he follows the program and shows marked improvement, the charges would be set aside. Unfortunately, the program is only offered in another county, and Jack would have to be placed in foster care to attend. Sally and Brad would also need to undergo separate counseling. Sally and Brad agree to set aside their differences and work with the program. Later, in group therapy, it is apparent that Jack has learned to use his anger to get his way by watching his father’s actions. In the final scene, Sally visits Jack, who seems to be responding well to therapy.


Dangerous Child takes the conventional issue of familial abuse and turns it on its head, demonstrating both the root cause of the problem and how it can expand and worsen. It does this with an extremely literate and plausible script, one that avoids sermonizing. In addition, the picture manages to address an important number of side issues, such as parental authority, the traumatic impact of divorce on children, and the controversy of being wrongly accused of child abuse. The script is basically fair, casting equal share of blame for the crisis resulting from Jack’s lack of self-control. Sally is a weak parent, always backing off and allowing Jack to get away with inappropriate behavior. Brad is overbearing, domineering, and a bad example to his children. Although he loves his mother, he has no respect for her or for her authority, which he challenges at every opportunity. Granted, he does show genuine remorse, but he remains a slave to his volcanic temper. Only Leo seems blameless in this scenario, meekly trying to be a mediator whenever possible. Even he has one outburst at the dinner table with Brad and Marcia, an incident that even surprises Jack. One of the most disturbing sequences in the film is the bureaucratic nightmare Sally finds when she tries to get help and is rejected by a series of social agencies who just seem uninterested in her problem. Ironically, the legal route that Sally considered too extreme provides the only viable solution and enables Jack to get the help he needed. Dangerous Child could serve as an excellent sounding board for discussing the issues of both child abuse and divorce.

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