Mel Gibson does justice to a wonderful story (based on the novel by Isabelle Holland) in "The Man Without a Face," his directorial debut. Commonly underrated as an actor because of his good looks and blockbuster action hits, Gibson is also terrific as the scarred recluse Justin McLeod, cantankerous and charismatic by turns. Like his student, Chuck (Nick Stahl), we notice the terrible burns less and less as the friendship between the boy and his tutor develops, as we penetrate the surface to the beauty beneath. (By the way, as one reviewer noted, only one half of McLeod's face has been disfigured - the title refers, not to McLeod, but to Chuck's absent father.) I do wonder why Gibson chose to eliminate the homoerotic overtones in their relationship - in the novel, Chuck's yearning for a genuine father figure is inextricably entangled with his confusion regarding his sexual identity and attraction to his tutor, and these twin needs force the dramatic climax that ends their time together. Perhaps Gibson preferred to keep the plot simpler, concentrating on the themes of prejudice, the joy of teaching, and the friendship and platonic love that his protagonists learn from each other. Or perhaps he feared that his viewing audience would not be as sympathetic towards a homosexual McLeod who killed a previous pupil in a drunk driving accident. Some reviewers appear to feel that the movie did not end as well as it began, and I think this could well be chalked up to the Hollywood sanitization of the last third of Holland's book. Still, this is a quietly splendid first film for director Gibson - a moving tribute to the transformative power of friendship and a funny, sometimes painful coming-of-age story expertly combined.