The Cider House Rules is about an orphan who is raised by his orphanage and the doctor in charge. Even after he moves away to see the ocean and fall in love, he comes back to succeed Dr. Larch as the head doctor. The film brings together an all-star cast, including Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, and Michael Caine, to bring to life a movie that examines some extremely controversial themes. Set in the 1940s, it is really about how people are sometimes called to make tough choices that break the rules in order to do what is right.
Homer Wells (Maguire) was born and raised at St. Cloud’s Orphanage. Although technically adopted twice, Homer ends up back at the orphanage both times and become the surrogate son of the doctor in charge, Dr. Larch (Caine). Dr. Larch teaches Homer everything he knows about obstetrics and gynecology, including how to deliver babies and perform abortions in the hope that Homer will become his successor. Homer thinks that abortions are absolutely wrong and refuses to do them. Dr. Larch tries to show him that they are sometimes necessary in order to save when from do-it-yourself, coat hanger, or back alley abortions. In order to experience life beyond the orphanage, Homer leaves with Lt. Wally Worthington (Rudd) and Candy Kendall (Theron) in order to work on Wally’s family apple farm. Homer lives in the cider house with the other apple pickers, including Arthur Rose (Lindo) and his daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu). When Wally heads off to fight voluntarily in the war, Candy and Homer fall in love.
There are a couple big choices that Homer must make. At first, he rejects the idea of coming back to the orphanage and revels in seeing the ocean and learning to pick apples and fish for lobster. However, when Wally is paralyzed at war and is about to return home, Homer and Candy must face what they have been doing and make a choice about their relationship. Meanwhile, Rose becomes pregnant, and it comes out that her father has been having sex with her. The baby is the result of the incestuous relationship. Homer decides to step up as the doctor he was trained to be and give Rose an abortion. It finally allows him to see what Dr. Larch was talking about when he argues that abortions are sometimes unavoidable. This revelation, combined with Dr. Larch’s death and the fact that Candy must stay with Wally, helps Homer decide to return to the orphanage and to his rightful place as the head doctor.
The Cider House Rules is a great film because of the difficult themes it discusses in a compassionate way. Set in the 1940s, it might be difficult to relate to the time period or the characters in the film, but we are drawn in anyway. It is all-at-once innocent and dark. It is shot like a storybook and gives us a whorl-wind romance while dealing with some intense content.
One of it’s major themes examines how even the most idealistic children eventually loose their innocence. Throughout the movie, we see the various orphans pleading to be adopted and be given a proper home. We also see each of them deal with the fact that it might never happen. The camera often lingers on their longing faces, and we feel for them. Each of the older orphans has been forced to grow up too soon. Of course, Homer has long ago accepted the fact that the orphanage is his home and Dr. Larch is his father-figure, but he must experience the world for himself before he can truly grow up.
What makes the film so controversial is the depictions of issues like abortion and incest. The film does exhibit a pro-choice point of view in a lot of ways, but I think it does so in a way that is thought-provoking and subtle. Instead of coming out and shouting that “abortion is a valid choice,” The Cider House Rules puts us in the point of view of several women who choose abortion and make us feel what they are feeling. We see a women who, in desperation, tries to perform an abortion on herself using a crochet hook. We meet Candy, an unwed young women too young to get pregnant, especially with a boyfriend who is heading off to war. And we see Rose, whose own father impregnated her. It shows us these women’s struggles and urges compassion rather than telling us what to think, which is one of the biggest triumphs of the film.
On top of the abortion and insect discussed in The Cider House Rules, we also see some heavy drug abuse by Dr. Larch. He is addicted to inhaling ether, and Homer and the nurses at the orphanage decidedly don’t discuss it because Dr. Larch is a good man who truly cares about the children. Sadly, Dr. Larch’s addiction leads to an accidental overdose that kills him. Still, I think part of what made Dr. Larch so sad was his broken heart. I think he realized that Homer was not going to come home. The actors handle these topics–abortion, insect, adultery, death, drug use–with incredible realism and maturity. They are able to take us into their world and experience a piece of the character’s lives.
The rules posted within the cider house become a symbol for difficult choices made within the movie. When Homer finally read the rules allowed for the rest of the apple picking crew, who can’t read, Mr. Rose observes, “Well, someone who don’t live here made those rules. Those rules ain’t for us. We are supposed to make our own rules. And we do. Every single day.” This really summarizes the essence of the whole film. The Cider House Rules is really about how some rules are created by people who have no idea what it is like in someone else’s shoes. They make rules for themselves and expect others to follow them, but every person is different. They have different experiences and values and ways of doing things. Sometimes, when the rules don’t work, people have to make their own or break the ones in place. That is really what the film was telling us.