Directed by Frank Perry. USA. 1962.

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Frank Perry's 1962 film David and Lisa is based on the book Lisa and David by Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin about two disturbed teenagers in a residential treatment centre whose growing affection for each other begins to break down the limitations of their illness. The film was one of the first to deal openly with the emotional problems of teenagers and we can forgive it if it now seems dated and a trifle clunky. At the time, however, it was a breakthrough for independent filmmaking, grossing five times the amount of its budget during its first week of release. The dialogue was unusually honest for its day and the black and white dream sequences far ahead of its time. In spite of some over-the-top acting and stilted dialogue, the film works because the two leads are so appealing and because we want to believe that they can help each other. 

Seventeen-year old David Clemens (Keir Dullea) is highly intelligent but suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes him terrified of any human contact. Lisa Brandt (Janet Margolin) is a schizophrenic who speaks only in singsong rhymes to avoid losing her identity to Muriel, her other self. David's violent aversion to being touched lands him in institution run by Dr. Swinford played very effectively by previously blacklisted actor Howard Da Silva. When David first arrives, he is angry, fearful, and wound into a tight knot. He starts to breakthrough when he begins interacting with Lisa, though he is forced to speak to her only in rhymes. Through their friendship, David gains a measure of self-esteem denied to him by his family, amply demonstrated when he is taken home from the institution and is witness to nothing but parental bickering. When David is able to also establish a friendship with other inmates, Lisa becomes jealous and runs away until they meet again in an extremely moving conclusion.

While the material has been adapted from actual case studies, it is not clear where reality ends and drama begins. There is very little structure at the school, no group counseling, no hint of medication, and no insight into what is actually troubling the other inmates, yet this does not stop David and Lisa from being an engrossing story in which we care about what the characters. Janet Margolin's innocent smile is enough to light up the darkest room and Dullea plays David with an involving sensitivity. While there may be some smirks along the way, when the film is over, grudging admiration gives way to strong appreciation.

Howard Schumann
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