Uncomfortable yet powerful.
Synopsis: At the height of his stardom Michael Jackson began long-running relationships with two boys, aged 7 and 10, and their families. Now in their 30s, they tell their story and how they came to terms with it years later. (IMDB)
Starring: Michael Jackson, Wade Robson, and Jimmy Safechuck
Director: Dan Reed
Rating: 14A (Canada)
Running Time: 240mins
Whether or not you are a fan of Michael Jackson, you will certainly not see him in the same light after watching this documentary. If you are a fan, beware as you will almost certainly not like what you are going to both see and hear throughout its 4 hour running time (though it was split into two 2 hour parts for HBO). Many will remember Jackson for his several decade music career but for some, this fact is less known by others who know him mostly because of rumors of inappropriate conduct around young boys. While many have suspected this to be the case, this documentary goes there in the kind of detail that will undoubtedly make most viewers uncomfortable.
Leaving Neverland serves as a coming of age story of sorts (that would be a generous way of putting it), following the story of two young boys (now men) and their families from the late 1980s to today. Each meeting Jackson at a young age, Robson by winning a dance competition and Safechuck appearing in a Pepsi commercial in the late 1980s. At the time, Jackson was clearly one of the biggest stars on the planet so the fact that he would chose them to be their friends was big for both them and their families. Over the years, each would share a strong bond with each other that would prove hard to break, causing plenty of emotional damage going into their adult years.
Over time, both the children and their families would fall under Jackson’s spell. Being associated with one of the most famous people on the planet was clearly something that was hard to pass up. Both Safechuck, Robson, and their families would talk about how he was such a great guy and all the nice things he did for them because that was all they knew about him from that point. From there the manipulation would begin as his relationship with each family would grow while he systematically wedged himself between each boy and their families with the goal of separating the boys from their parents. Little did the families know, their relationships with Jackson would lead to their eventual destruction.
Jackson and the boys were friends. Robson and Safechuck valued their relationships with him since they knew how big he was. The fact that they had chosen them to be his friends and not any other kids meant everything to them. Jackson and the boys would play around, doing what all kids did but little did their families know, often when they were nearby, that he would perform some uncomfortable sexual acts on them and they to him (I won’t go in any detail here but I’m sure you can find that information elsewhere). This was definitely uncomfortable to hear to say the least. They clearly didn’t know any better. For all they knew, all of this was okay and they just wanted to please their friend.
As Robson and Safechuck grew older, they would witness other boys come into the picture. They were each so committed to Jackson that seeing him with other boys made them jealous and sad despite knowing what was surely happening to them. Being left out felt like rejection to them. Their relationship with Jackson was all they ever knew. He would still maintain these types of relationships with several boys (with most denying them) even when faced with legal troubles after being accused both in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Both boys and their families stood by him because they believed that Jackson was such a great guy, not knowing what he had done to the boys, and because of his emotional manipulation of the boys.
As Robson and Safechuck became adults, their contact with Jackson lessened and we follow them as they attempt to live their own lives but the damage was already done. The trauma and repressed memories from their trouble pasts would affect each of their personal lives in a way that was just as tragic as what was done to them as children. The moment when they would finally reveal what happened to them was truly heartbreaking to watch, not only for the weight that was lifted from their shoulders but also the feelings of guilt and anger from each of their families who were unaware that this was even happening.
The subject matter may have been uncomfortable at times but it was still compelling to watch Robson and Safechuck’s life stories play out in front of our eyes as described by them and their families. However, while these people were talking, it was easy to become disconnected from what was being said at times. The use of seemingly random landscape shots in between interview shots, primarily during part 1, made it easy to lose focus on what was being said. This problem would improve come part 2. While the score was effective in conveying emotion, at times that emotion felt manufactured and arguably manipulative.
Whether you believe Robson and Safechuck or not or if Michael Jackson is truly guilty, Finding Neverland is a scathing and often uncomfortable yet powerful and very emotional documentary that Jackson fans will certainly not enjoy. It may be long but it doesn’t waste a minute of its running time, featuring a pair of tragic coming of age stories ending with the destruction of two different families. While it was easy to become disconnected to what was happening at times, it was still easy to feel for all those involved. This certainly a film that will be hard to forget.