If there is one word to describe the experience of watching HBO’s Leaving Neverland, it is loss. For Wade Robson and James Safechuck — who allege in the HBO film that Michael Jackson sexually molested them for years when they were boys — there is lost innocence, lost trust in their parents, lost years of happiness as they struggled as adults to deal with the alleged abuse. For the viewer, meanwhile, there is the loss of… peace of mind, let’s call it. No matter what you think of Robson’s and Safechuck’s claims — which the singer’s estate call “absolutely false” — it is all but impossible to leave Neverland unscathed.
The four-hour film (airing March 3 and 4th on HBO) tells the “separate but parallel” stories of Robson and Safechuck, both of whom met Michael Jackson separately at the height of his fame. The singer took an immediate interest in the boys and quickly became a close family friend — having dinner at their houses, chatting daily on the phone with the boys and their moms, inviting them on trips. Part 1 of Neverland effectively establishes — through interviews with Robson and Safechuck, as well as their moms and siblings — how surreal, overwhelming, and intoxicating it was for these ordinary families to be the subject of so much attention from the most famous man on the planet. (Even today, Robson’s mother sounds awed at the memory of her first trip to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch: “It’s like a fairy land.”) It’s all in the service of answering the question every viewer is bound to ask: But how on Earth did these boys end up having “sleepovers” with a grown man? As Robson, who says Jackson first abused him at age 7 during a family trip to Neverland, explains, “For me to look back on the scenario now, what you’d think would be kind of like standard instincts and judgment seemed to go out the window.”
As subjects, Robson and Safechuck are endlessly compelling, both for their similar stories and the very different ways they present to the world. With his sad eyes and soft voice, Safechuck seems haunted, and he sometimes speaks in the second person (“your love for him is growing”) as if to distance himself from the memories. Robson, who went on to become a well-known choreographer and music producer, tells his story with a mixture of confidence and anger. Director Dan Reed underscores the horror of Robson and Safechuck’s allegations by intercutting their very graphic descriptions of sexual abuse with photos of them as baby-faced little boys — sometimes as they stand, smiling, next to the man they claim molested them. It is incredibly powerful and excruciating to watch. (Perhaps this is obvious: Neverland should absolutely be avoided by anyone triggered by discussions of sexual abuse.)
From a filmmaking standpoint, Neverland has problems. Reed sometimes allows his four-hour narrative to wander; one tangent in particular involves Robson’s father, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later died by suicide. It’s a tragic part of Robson’s story, certainly, but not particularly relevant to his allegations against Jackson.
The larger issue with Leaving Neverland, though, is that for something that calls itself a “documentary,” it is woefully one-sided — and in some cases, conveniently selective about the information it chooses to include about its two subjects. Legally, Reed and HBO have no obligation to include a denial by Jackson’s estate — you cannot defame a dead man, as it were. (A clip of Jackson’s 1992 video denial is included in the film.) For a documentary to be a true work of journalism, however, it is incumbent upon the filmmaker to solicit comments from the opposing side — in this case Jackson’s estate, his family, etc. — which the estate insists Reed did not do. (On Feb. 21, the estate filed a lawsuit against HBO over Leaving Neverland.) The director has said that he did interview former detectives and prosecutors from the two principal investigations into Jackson, but the only opposing commentary in the film comes courtesy of YouTube videos, featuring wild-eyed fans berating Robson for going public with his claims. And Neverland all but ignores Robson and Safechuck’s lawsuits against the Jackson estate — both of which were dismissed and are currently under appeal. Though Robson’s suit is mentioned in the film, neither he nor Safechuck are questioned about the ongoing litigation or their motives for pursuing it.
Does the existence of these lawsuits or the absence of comment from a Jackson representative mean Robson and Safechuck are lying? Of course not. It is just one more loss, in this case a lost opportunity for Neverland to strengthen its foundation. It is not for this publication to pass judgment on the content of their stories. For review purposes, let us leave it at this: As a documentary in the strictest sense of the word, Leaving Neverland is a failure. As a reckoning, though, it is unforgettable. Grade: B