By William Engel
“A Chance in the World” genuinely uplifting drama, bolstered by several compelling performances from the cast. “A Chance in the World”, based on the autobiographical book of the same name, cinematically depicts the life story of Steve Pemberton, a child left with an abusive foster home at the age of five. In the film, Steve strives to get himself an education, learn the truth about his biological parents, and escape his intolerable living situation.
The film follows Steve (Terrell Ransom Jr.), a boy who was left in an abusive foster home as a toddler. In his current living situation, he faces unrelenting abuse from his foster family – particularly his cruel foster mother, Betty (Kelly Owens). Steve attempts to escape his suffering, both by searching for the truth about his biological parents, and by joining a program that would help him get into college, but Betty doesn’t make either task easy for him. On the film looks and sounds beautiful. Ransom Jr. is strikingly vulnerable as the young Steve, inspiring sympathy in every shot, while Owens is positively hatable in the role of his two-faced, abusive foster mother. Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs is particularly noteworthy as the foster father, Willie, playing a character who’s both intimidating and oddly pitiable. He’s harsh with Steve when we first meet him, but we soon find out that he lashes out because of his insecurity over being illiterate, and he appreciates Steve’s attempts to help him learn how to read.
The film comes courtesy of writer/director Mark Vadik, who learned of Steve’s inspiring life story through an executive producer. I recently sat down with writer/director Mark Vadik to talk to him about the genesis of this project.
WILL ENGEL: How did you first find out about the story that “A Chance in the World” is based on?
MARK VADIK: There’s an underlying book, and it’s called “A Chance in the World”; it’s about Steve. Steve’s son and the executive producer’s son played basketball together at the same high school, and I guess Mike, the EP, heard about the book and talked to Steve about it. So Mike bought it, read it, loved it; he went to Tom Bastounes, another producer, and he said, “Hey, could you read this book?” And Tom read it, and he loved the story, and then Tom called me and said, “Hey, could you read this book?” And that’s kind of how I heard about it.
ENGEL: Did Steve have any input during the screenwriting and filming process?
VADIK: Yeah, to an extent, he did. He basically said that he wanted the story pretty true to the book, so we did that. And honestly, when he got the draft of the script, he was pretty happy with it. That was kind of the extent of it.
ENGEL: What did the think of the finished product?
VADIK: He liked it. Very much so. He screened the film for friends and family, and participated in the theatrical screening that we had in New York, and they all liked it. At least that’s what he tells me; he might be just being incredibly polite.
ENGEL: Regarding the other characters in the film – you know, Betty and Willie – I assume they’re all based closely on people in Steve’s life?
VADIK: Yes, that’s correct.
ENGEL: Well, I’m curious to learn more about Steve’s relationship with Willie, the foster father. Did Steve really teach him how to read? Did they keep in touch after Steve moved out?
VADIK: They did not really stay in contact. Steve actually did offer to teach him how to read, though. But once he was removed from the house, the contact [with his foster family] was pretty much nonexistent – that is, until Betty was about to pass, and she called him from the hospital. She was kind of saying, “Look at the man that I made you,” but I think if you read into the subtext, it was somewhat an apology.
ENGEL: That’s a little surprising to me, considering how remorseless she’s portrayed in the movie.
VADIK: Yeah, true – and again, that might just be me imposing my interpretation on it. And I think that Betty is… unless you just assume she’s just a complete sociopath, she has a very peculiar psychology behind her as well.
ENGEL: On the subject of Betty, I remember a line about her claiming to have won awards for childcare. Did she actually win any awards?
VADIK: Yeah, she did.
VADIK: I’m far cry from an expert on foster care, but at the time, I believe it was a pretty dysfunctional and broken system, and people were just doing their best. So if you kind of put on an outward mask, if you wear a mask of being a good foster parent, apparently it was accepted.
ENGEL: Yeah, that seemed to be a major aspect of her character – just how two-faced and manipulative she was.
VADIK: Yeah, yeah. I mean, my understanding is that it was a pretty accurate depiction of her personality. And the actress who played her, Kelly Owens, did it in a very believable fashion. There’s a scene where she doesn’t speak, actually; it’s all conveyed through her face. It’s in the scene when she grabs the kid’s arm when he’s in the hospital, and she demands to know what he told [the nurses]. And then she hears the nurses and doctor come in, and her faces just changes completely. She did a great job portraying that.
ENGEL: Do you think that film will encourage people to start advocating for foster care reform, to prevent people like Betty from adopting?
VADIK: Well, I think… you have to remember, this film takes place during the 70’s, when it was a very different system. But we’ve been contacted by a lot of people who are active in the foster care system, and they do use it to explain what could go wrong with the current system. So, yeah, it does have those uses, and we’ve been approached for stuff like that as well.
ENGEL: Overall, what do you hope that your audiences will take away from the story you’ve told?
VADIK: I guess the main things that I’d like people to take away are the positives from the story. I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in how bad it was for Steve, and to pity him, but I think the aspects I’d like people to pull out of it are, one, that literature and education can lift someone out of a bad situation, and two… I’d like people to understand that you can have a family, even if it’s not a biological family, simply by being surrounded by people who love and care for you.
I haven’t really thought about reforming the current system, since I’m not that familiar with it, but I do hope the film encourages people to get involved and maybe consider fostering and adopting some of these kids. And if you send them to the website, www.achanceintheworldmovie.com, there’s a resources page that directs people to foster care organizations, if people want to learn more about helping these kids.
ENGEL: Thank you for your time.
VADIK: You’re welcome. [TAOM]