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The Fundamentals of Disability Movies

June 14, 2016


Despite my previous post, documentaries don’t provide the only signs of intelligent life at the movies this summer. I recently saw two indie dramedies that deal with disability, The Fundamentals of Caring and My Blind Brother, at the Greenwich International Film Festival, and I’m pleased to report that they’re both refreshingly unsentimental takes on a genre that can easily slip into bathos.

Written and directed by longtime Late Show with David Letterman executive producer Rob Burnett (working from a novel by Jonathan Evison), The Fundamentals of Caring casts Paul Rudd as Ben, a man grieving the death of his young son who takes a job at a home health-care aide for Trevor, (Craig Roberts, in a revelatory performance), a surly British adolescent with Muscular Dystrophy. If anyone can undercut the inherent sappiness of this situation, it’s Rudd, the rare actor who can strike a perfect balance between sincerity and sarcasm.

The degree of difficulty increases when you factor in the life-changing road trip that Ben and Trevor take together, yet Burnett and his stars refuse to give in to corniness, even as Trevor confronts his absentee dad, a car salesman played with chilling inhumanity by Frederick Weller. But the film’s biggest surprise is Selena Gomez’s nuanced work as Dot, a runaway hitchhiker whom the duo picks up along the way. Her romantic subplot with Roberts never turns condescending, and when she’s reunited with her own deadbeat dad (the always-electric Bobby Cannavale), Fundamentals‘ touching exploration of the true meaning of parenthood really hits home.

Every time you think the movie is going to teeter into tearjerker-land — like when the trio picks up another passenger, Peaches (Megan Ferguson), the pregnant wife of a deployed U.S. soldier — Burnett and his cast steer the story back towards bracing irreverence. A healthy dose of bathroom humor helps, but it’s Roberts’ preternatural ability to show the aching vulnerability just below Trevor’s off-putting snarkiness that’s the fundamental reason why this film works so well.

my_blind_brotherSimilarly, Adam Scott’s scathing interpretation of the title character in Sophie Goodhart’s My Blind Brother (slated to hit theaters in September) proves that dickishness can be a stronger and funnier disability than any physical impairment. The Parks and Recreation vet suppresses his inherent Paul Rudd-like likability to make his character, Robbie, almost entirely unsympathetic as he uses his blindness to draw outsize attention and acclaim to himself for his relatively minor charitable works. Meanwhile, his underachieving sibling, Bill (Nick Kroll, showing a dramatic range not heretofore seen on The League or his short-lived self-titled skitcom), can no longer contain his quiet resentment of Robbie when they compete for the affection of Rose (Jenny Slate), and Bill loses out to his self-pitying, insensitive sibling.

Interestingly, Rose finds herself in a similar predicament to Fundamentals‘ Ben — she’s lost a loved one in a vehicular accident, yet her guilt over her ex-boyfriend getting hit by a bus immediately after she broke up with him because she didn’t like his nipples, is played successfully for laughs. It just goes to show that any topic, no matter how seemingly taboo to mine for humor, can yield yuks when properly handled.

The Fundamentals of Caring and My Blind Brother aren’t the first films to deal with disabilities in an exhilaratingly unhallowed manner — one needs only look back to John Hawkes’ remarkable, shoulda-been-Oscar-nominated tour de force as a man in an iron lung who’s looking to get laid in 2012’s The Sessions to see another recent example. But both films remind us that nothing cripples a script like cheap schmaltz. Burnett and Goodhart earn every laugh — and every tear — honestly.

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