DIRECTED BY: Victor Salva
FEATURING: Sean Patrick Flanery, Lance Henriksen, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Steenburgen
PLOT: A supernaturally gifted teen misfit fights against the grain when he is forcibly integrated into a backward community.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A strange blend of fantasy and drama, Powder has shadings of The Enigma of Casper Hauser (1975), Carrie (1976), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
COMMENTS: In a situation reminiscent of Casper Hauser’s enigma in the 1975 film, Jeremy Reed (Flanery) is discovered sequestered in his grandmother’s basement upon her death in a podunk Texas town. A bright, sensitive boy, he has been raised without contact with the outside world, with which he is acquainted only through books. He happens to be albino, and not just like Edgar Winter—he is mime white.
Additionally, he is hairless. Because of his unsettling appearance he attracts the unbecoming nickname “Powder.” He also attracts static electricity. His father rejected him because of his appearance; his grandparents sheltered him. Contact with the outside world is novel and very troublesome for Powder, and for those who meet him.
The film opens with his premature birth after his mother is struck by lightning. This turns out to be foreshadowing: concepts of electricity and energy are dispersed throughout the film. Powder’s body exudes an interactive electromagnetic field. Wristwatches run backward when he’s upset, televisions overload with static, electronic devices run haywire. In a discussion with his teacher, the instructor tells Powder that Einstein allegedly said he wasn’t sure death exists, because energy never ceases to exist, and that if man ever reaches a point where he can use all of his brain, he would be pure energy and not need a body. This catches Powder’s attention.
Powder is still a minor, and not exactly the picture of conformity. Ideally, he needs to be in a progressive, tolerant environment; so, of course, the local authorities lock him up in a violent rural boys’ home that’s more reform school than orphanage. As one can imagine, he is welcomed with open arms by the crude, hostile ruffians. Well, not exactly; they harass and torment him incessantly, with murder in their collective eye.
While he is a ward of the state, two staffers played by Steenburgen and Goldblum try to help him. Powder takes aptitude tests. His unusually high scores indicate that he has a profound intellect, but nobody believes it. His test results are challenged by a panel of hostile state goons. Meanwhile, the bullies in the state boys home discover that he can defend himself with telekinetic electromagnetic powers.
Like a faith healer, Powder cures a dying woman. This development adds a religious element to the film that complicates efforts to comprehend Powder’s true nature. While his in vitro exposure to lightning bestowed him with electromagnetic powers, he has other abilities as well, including psychic ones. Difficult to classify and out of his element, Powder is like a stranded alien.
As Powder and the confused, disturbed locals continue to clash, the chasm between them grows wider. Many are awed by and fearful of his unusual talents. All Powder wants to do is go home and live in seclusion. He escapes the group home and tries to return, but his family property has been foreclosed upon. Some town officials encourage him to run away, others want him back in the boys’ home.
Near the end of the story there’s a suggestion that Powder is just too unique for this world; he’s portrayed like a Christ figure. It is dubious that this is really what the filmmakers had in mind. Powder is a science fiction fantasy about nonconformity and social rejection, not a religious allegory.
Like the title character of Brian De Palma‘s Carrie, Powder is gifted and different, ostracized and misunderstood. Powder, however, does not take a spectacular revenge based on his seething resentment. Instead, he strives and strives to escape somehow, always trying to find a away to transcend his dilemma.
The conflicts, uncertainty, tension and turmoil come to a flashpoint when a huge thunderhead approaches the town and Powder rushes into the storm. In a spectacular cinematic sequence, many uncertain elements of Powder’s riddle merge in an unexpected way that is unconventionally conclusive and magical.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Imagine Edward Scissorhands under the control of a mainstream director rather than someone offbeat and eccentric like Tim Burton. The result would have been just another motion picture about a prototypical misfit trying to find his niche — a movie with a lot of manipulation and too many easy answers. Powder is such a film.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)