A Chance in the World: Searching for Answers at the Hands of Abuse (Movie Review)

John FarrellBy John Farrell9 Minutes

According to AdoptUSKIds, which is operated by the National Adoption Association, there are just under 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Of that number, approximately 117,000 of the children are waiting to be adopted.

On September 30, 2022, there were 391,098 children in foster care in the United States, according to the AFCARS Report published jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Administration for Children and Families; Administration on Children, Youth and Families; and the Children’s Bureau. The study reported that 63 percent of the children entering foster care during the 2021 fiscal year were there due to neglect. Drug abuse (36 percent) by a parent was the second most common reason for a child’s removal from a house.

Some children stay in the foster care system for years; however, 38 percent of children are in foster care for only a month to a year, according to the report. And 21 percent of all children that entered foster care during 2021 fiscal year were younger than a year old.

While there are some great aspects of our country’s foster care system, there are also many negative elements. Unfortunately, these not-so-good points are often what paints this program in an unfavorable light.

I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of the U.S. foster care system, but instead look at it in relation to the 2017 film A Chance in the World, based on the book of the same title by Steve Pemberton. The story is a true account of Steve’s life in the foster care system, and in particular one household.

An Unsafe Home

Steve Pemberton (Terrell Ransom Jr., “The Amazing World of Gumball”) is a young teenager who has been in and out of foster homes all his life. He dreams of finding his biological parents or, at least, learning who they are. Unfortunately, his current foster family—the Robinsons—does nothing in the way of helping him. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Betty Robinson (Kelly Owens, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain) is the matriarch of Steve’s foster family. Although tyrant would be more apropos. She takes every opportunity to belittle, ridicule, and threaten Steve. And when words simply won’t do, she resorts to violence. The physical and emotional abuse are rampant.

The abuse Steve receives inside the Robinson home doesn’t only come from Mrs. Robinson. Her other two children living at home don’t hesitate to join in on the verbal abuse or to encourage their mom’s cruelty toward Steve. In one particularly disturbing scene at the beginning of the movie, you see it on full display over breakfast.

A Breakfast Conversation

After receiving a late-night phone call from Mr. Sykes (Tom Sizemore, Saving Private Ryan), a counselor at Steve’s school, asking Steve to come by his office the next morning, Betty and Willie (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, “Welcome Back, Kotter”), Steve’s foster father, immediately assume the worst – that he had been talking too much. It is during the following conversation over breakfast that we learn just how backwards the Robinson family is and the mantras Steve is expected to remember and recite at a moment’s notice.

Betty: Have you been talking too much, Steve?

Steve: No, ma’am.

Betty: Because if you have … rule number five.

Steve: No one will ever take my word over yours.

Betty: Why?

Daughter: Make him say. Make him do it, Mama.

Betty: Rule number four.

Steve: Because I am dumb and ugly. There’s something wrong with me and everyone knows this.

Daughter: Make him do number eight, please.

Betty: Rule number eight … (more viciously) rule number eight! … Willie?!

Steve: No one will ever want me, especially not my own mother or father.

Daughter: Thanks, Mama! That one’s my favorite.

Of course, this is just a small sampling of the abuse Steve endured during his time in the Robinson home. Although the movie skipped over much of the abuse due to time there is another instance the movie covers because it serves as a pivotal moment in both the movie and Steve’s life.

A few scenes after the breakfast conversation, Steve comes home with a book and a manilla envelope holding an application to a special program he was invited to join at school. Betty is sitting at the kitchen table smoking and having her hair brushed by her daughter. She asks Steve to get her a washcloth from the linen closet. Betty thinks the washcloth stinks and hits Steve in the face with an ashtray sending him to the hospital.

The majority of the remaining movie centers on two things: 1. Steve’s time in the hospital and whether or not he will rat on his foster mom to the officials, doctors, and nurses who repeatedly question him about the truth and how he really got his injuries. 2. Searching for answers to who and where are Steve’s biological parents.

My Reaction

If I’m being honest, A Chance in the World was hard to swallow. Don’t get me wrong … it was great and all the main actors did a fantastic job. I’ve just never been in the foster care system nor have I ever had to constantly move from one family member to another, so I could not imagine being in Steve’s shoes. The amount and type of abuse Steve was subjected to is hard for me to fathom. My heart broke for him because it seemed that no matter what he did to please the Robinsons it was never good enough. It seemed that they were looking for every opportunity to make his life as miserable as possible.

In my opinion, Betty is evil personified. She is obviously abusive, but what makes her even worse in my book is her ability to immediately switch back and forth between the saccharine-sweet façade she puts on for the hospital and school staff and the vile creature she turns into around Steve.

I’m sure (or at least I’m hopeful) that most kids’ experiences in the foster care system aren’t as horrifying as Steve’s. I imagine many of the foster families are genuine, loving people who truly care about the well-being of the kids in their care. Unfortunately, that wasn’t Steve’s experience.

You’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens to Steve: does he rat out Betty, does he move out of the Robinson house, and does he finally find a loving, forever home?