By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 26, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

The images of maimed and disfigured children loom up before you, and it would be useless to pretend that the effect was anything but horrifically shocking. Here is Anthony, whose skin is literally falling off his body. (He suffers from a degenerative disease known as epidermolysis bullosa, which has also given him cancer.) Here is Xenia, who was born without legs, and here is Faith, who was burned in a crib at the age of 4 months. She is now 8, her head and face a grisly mask of skin grafts. There are many more young sufferers to come.

My Flesh and Blood is a documentary that received several awards at the Sundance Film Festival (it’s among the finalists for this year’s Oscar nominees), yet I found it a deeply troublesome experience. What do these kids have in common apart from their heartbreaking afflictions? It turns out they’re all members of the same adoptive family, one presided over by Susan Tom, a sullen, obese, 53-year-old divorced mother in Fairfield, Calif., who runs her home of 13 children (two are her biological sons) with the brusquely impersonal, passive-aggressive good cheer of a tightly buttoned-up nun.

The movie presents her as a paragon of selfless empathy. Yet what’s disturbing about ”My Flesh and Blood” is what’s disturbing about the Tom family itself, which is the way that it sets the children apart, as if they were members of a cult, in order to plead for their humanity. We might almost be watching a domesticated, suburban version of the Jerry Lewis telethon: the gathering together of damaged innocents by a ”saintly” adult who fetishizes, and defines, them through their disfigurement. You’d have to be a stone not to be affected by ”My Flesh and Blood,” but the director, Jonathan Karsh, merges compassion with voyeurism until you can’t tell the difference.