Zack Gottsagen is an exceptional young man who happens to have Down Syndrome. At a camp for both disabled and non-disabled people, his exuberant energy was attention grabbing. He told people he intended to be a movie star. Two other campers, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, decided to write him a starring vehicle for their new friend, so they did. Directed it too. Called it The Peanut Butter Falcon.
In it, Zack plays a guy named Zak. Zak has no family, so he lives in a nursing home where he is well cared for but surrounded by old folks, as you can imagine. He runs away not because he’s unhappy or mistreated, but because he dreams of being a wrestler, and meeting his idol, Salt Water Redneck. Zak’s not helpless but there’s a reason he lives in a care home, and without a carer, things go badly for him. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a social worker from the home who’s quite close to Zak, sets out to find him. But first, Zak finds Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a pretty wayward guy used to being alone and rootless in the world, not exactly the prime suspect for becoming a vagabond caregiver, yet here we are.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is often described as a modern day Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – I suppose the raft alone makes this comparison inevitable. This, however, is a different animal. Sweet and heart-warming, it reminds us that we all need goals and human connection to thrive. We need to matter. Wrestling may be the destination, but friendship is the journey.
You may already know about this movie even if you haven’t seen it. Sia, the popular singer-songwriter with the oversized wigs, is its director and co-writer, but more importantly, is the woman who made a movie about a young woman on the autism spectrum without casting or seemingly consulting anyone on the spectrum. And when she was called out about it, she got kind of defensive. Understandable, maybe, but not a great look. She has since half-apologized, the very definition of too little, too late.
While I definitely believe that inclusion is good and right, and representation important, I decided to see if I could set the controversy aside and enjoy the movie anyway. The short answer is NO. The long answer is:
Music is not about a young woman on the spectrum named Music. Music (Maddie Ziegler) lives with grandma Millie (Mary Kay Place), who has carefully constructed a safe space in which Music can exist. Music is barely verbal, but she likes to go for walks and visit the library, and she’s never without her headphones. But then Millie suffers a deadly stroke and Music’s sister Zu (Kate Hudson) has to step up and take custody, which is a real head scratcher since Zu is an addict and a drug dealer recently released from prison and currently on parole. How she gets custody is beyond me. She can barely care for herself, she’s 40 but hardly an adult. Caring for a special needs sister seems wildly beyond her, which is probably why things get so wildly out of control. Anyway, this movie is not about Music, it’s about Zu. Music is merely used as a prop to help Zu achieve her goals. She’s a plot device on Zu’s road to redemption.
While this is hardly Hollywood’s first ‘marginalized person as a plot device’ narrative, it is a particularly offensive portrayal by Maddie Ziegler, who, by her own admission only prepared for the role by watching Youtube videos of kids on the spectrum having meltdowns. Ziegler’s performance is without depth or nuance. It’s one-dimensional, insensitive, and doesn’t begin to describe a person as a whole. But director Sia doesn’t understand this, and the script, co-written by Sia and children’s author Dallas Clayton, isn’t interested in fully-realized characters anyway. Music remains opaque and unknowable, Zu is hardly treated to anything resembling an arc or development, and other characters aren’t just basic but sometimes downright offensively stereotypical. It’s surprising that Sia was able to get the likes of Hector Elizondo, Mary Kay Place, Ben Schwartz, and Leslie Odom Jr. to sign on, but then again, none of them would have seen Ziegler’s patronizing performance until everyone was already on set and the ink on contracts was good and dry. But the whole notion that Zu can achieve some sort of absolution merely by learning to love her “challenging” sister is gross. Music doesn’t exist to make Zu look good. She shouldn’t be used as a way to illustrate someone else’s good vibes and positive intentions. She’s not an instrument or a stop along her big sister’s victory tour; her depiction as such is cruel and irresponsible. Why does a movie named after her fail to see Music as a person?
This patronizing and poorly judged filmed is frequently interrupted by an entire album’s worth of Sia songs – performed by Ziegler, Hudson, and Odom Jr. – and their accompanying music videos, which masquerade as insight into Music’s interior life but are really just an excuse to trade on the director’s only real talent. If only she had merely put out 10 videos instead. The musical interludes are of course pastel pieces of choreography heaven, but they not only have little if anything to do with the film itself, they also get really old really fast. Sia lacks the skill to connect these interjections to the larger story and the videos feel shoe-horned into a film that doesn’t want them. And though Maddie Ziegler’s other Sia collaborations (on her videos for Chandelier, Elastic Heart, and Big Girls Cry) are borderline genius, these are of course tainted by Ziegler’s self-evidently problematic aping of disability.
The film’s ignorant and infantilizing portrayal of autism is disastrous, so it might be a good time to yet again point out that actually involving people on the spectrum in this film’s conception, casting, development, and shooting would have resulted in something more authentic and representative. I know it’s tempting, in today’s cancel-prone culture, to dismiss or boycott this film, but I think that we can still learn valuable lessons from bad art. And Music is very, very bad. It’s so bad that it should serve as a new benchmark for productions going forward. It’ll be harder for mistakes like this to be made in the future. That’s not so much a silver lining as a tin foil lining, paltry perhaps, meager consolation, but it’s important to remember that a movie like this doesn’t just do a disservice to a marginalized community, it sets us all back, our understanding and our empathy and our ability to build a more inclusive society. Music isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom, and the only way we can be part of the cure is to talk about the way forward.
December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. You may have heard some rumbling about disabled representation in the movies lately – Anne Hathaway took some flak for her limb difference in The Witches, and Sia’s movie, Music, has been criticized for casting a non-autistic actor in the lead role. Representation matters, and while the Oscars LOVE disabled characters, they don’t show the same love for disabled actors, who are rarely cast to portray themselves on screen, and almost never cast to portray anyone else. Although 20% of us live with some sort of disability, less than 5% of movie and TV characters are disabled, and of those few who are, less than 3% are played by actually disabled actors. That math is abysmal. Are disabilities the last place of the civil rights movement?
Camp Jened (its legal name), had actually been in existence for years, but in the early 1970s it was run by hippies who created an oasis of sorts for disabled teenagers. To anyone else, it would have looked like a run-down, ramshackle summer camp of nightmares, but to those who attended, it was practically utopia. In the 1970s, the world was not accommodating to those with disabilities. Most disabled persons lived in relative isolation, dependent on others, if not outright institutionalized. At Camp Jened, they were free. Not free of their disabilities, but free of the judgement and discrimination. In a camp where everyone was disabled, no one was; the disabilities virtually unnoticed, the campers were allowed to be defined by other things, perhaps feeling fulfilled as human beings for the first time. Like any teenager, they played sports, sang songs, smoked and made out – for many this was the only opportunity to “date.”
When they grew out of camp, this close-knit group stuck together, and started advocating and disrupting for disabled rights, inclusion, and accessibility.
Crip Camp is co-directed by filmmaker Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht, an overdue tribute to the place that ultimately changed the world for millions of disabled people.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago (in 1990: that is actually shamefully recent!), disabled people to this day are fighting just for the right to exist with dignity and anything resembling equality.
I myself live with several (mostly invisible) disabilities. 2020 has been a strange year for people with disabilities. On the one hand, the whole world has gotten a taste of what it’s like to be me. Because I am immuno-compromised, I’ve always battled against viruses, each one potentially very serious for me as I lack a basic immune system to fight them. With the pandemic, every Canadian across this country automatically got all of the accommodations I’ve had to fight to have at my own work: clean work stations, physical distancing, even the right to work at home, which seems a small ask when it’s potentially life saving. I’ve been in medical isolation at home since March. When restrictions were starting to ease up over the summer, many Canadians ventured out of their homes while I stayed in mine. Like many people with disabilities, it’s hard not to feel like life sometimes moves on without us, forgets the people still trapped in their homes. Now that the COVID numbers are increasing again, Canadian regulations have once again changed to reflect it, to protect the majority, while those of us in the minority try not to take it personally that our lives are not worth the same consideration.
Before COVID, I led a relatively normal life, at least to outside eyes. I went to work, I travelled, I spent time with family and friends. My life is permanently etched with pain, and my health is constantly compromised by every passing virus, but since I don’t have a choice, I deal with it. Sometimes I miss things. Sometimes I cancel. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. But I lived. I made significant contributions to my field, I found joy, I was a presence in the lives of my niece and nephews, I hosted dinner parties and attended film festivals and fell in love. Every moment also in pain, sometimes unable to drive or walk or sleep, but doing my best, which was still pretty good. And now my life is on pause. It’s disconcerting, it’s unfair, but it’s not without its positives: 2020 was the first year I didn’t get pneumonia in at least a decade. How about that?
Because actual representation in film is so rare, this is a very short list of actors with disabilities excelling in film:
CJ Jones: he played Ansel Elgort’s disabled foster father in Baby Driver, stealing scenes and providing the film with warmth and heart. But for Jones, parts like these are almost unheard of. “It’s hard to find a black deaf role” although it looks like he’s found another in Avatar 2.
Kiera Allen: she recently played opposite Sarah Paulson in Hulu’s Run, a mother-daughter Munchausen by Proxy thriller. The role is extremely physically demanding, but Allen, who uses a wheelchair in real life, nailed the part and showed us all what she can do.
Adam Pearson: in Chained For Life, Pearson portrays an actor with facial deformities with whom his leading lady struggles to connect while working together. Pearson has neurofibromatosis, type 1 in real life and gives a formidable performance in this film.
Zach Gottsagen: he won hearts in The Peanut Butter Falcon, playing a young man with Downs Syndrome who escapes his care home to pursue his dreams of being a pro wrestler. Starring opposite Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, Gottsagen holds his own and proves himself more than capable.
Millicent Simmonds: who can forget the deaf actress’ stunning performance in A Quiet Place, a horror film in which monsters hunt what they hear, and one family survives thanks to their ability to communicate in sign language.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. He and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in a two-person band and they just love to bang on shit and make noise. They travel the country in their Airstream; it’s not a glamorous life or a well-remunerated one (yet, there are talks of an album), but they’re happy. Which means the universe is hiding around the corner waiting to deliver a great big wallop.
One day, Ruben wakes up deaf. It has likely been a bit more progressive than this, but this movie doesn’t document it, it just dumps us into his sudden new reality, which clearly takes him by surprise. The verdict: his hearing’s not coming back. A cochlear implant may give him some approximation of hearing (and a bill for $80 grand regardless), but Ruben is deaf, and it’s permanent. As you might imagine, being a transient drummer in a largely unsuccessful band does not come with insurance. Desperate in his new deafness, Ruben is of course fixated on the miraculous-sounding implant, but the reality is that for now, he just has to learn to live with his new situation. He’s still in denial, and he’s depressed, and Lou worries that his sobriety is about to be compromised, but traditional meetings, and even his sponsor, won’t be much help if he can’t hear them. Which is how they wind up reaching out to Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a deaf community and is an addict himself. The community has everything Ruben needs right now: a safe space to learn to be deaf. The only problem is, it needs to be a fully immersive experience, cutting him off from the rest of the world, including Lou. Ruben hasn’t just lost his hearing. He’s lost his love, his home, his music. He is a wayward soul who doesn’t know how to begin to grieve, let alone cope.
Though Ruben isn’t exactly a demonstrative person, we sense how profoundly changed his life is; his reactions feel authentic if unhelpful, and we can’t honestly say we wouldn’t do the same ourselves. Ahmed’s commitment to the role is evident in every frame; he spent 6 months learning to drum, which his character can only do for about 6 minutes of film time. He also learned American Sign Language, a vital skill not only for his character, but for communicating with his deaf colleagues on set. In his directorial debut, Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham, knew the value of seeking out deaf actors for deaf parts.
Ruben is reimagining his entire identity, which can obviously be a scary process. Ahmed allows himself to be vulnerable on screen as he tries to absorb his new realities. Acceptance is key, but its path has such rough terrain. Told from a hearing perspective, or at least a former one, Sound of Metal is an interesting bridge into the deaf community. But it’s also at its just one man’s struggle with self-acceptance. He needs to let go of his past to reimagine his future, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done.
Sound of Metal is in select theatres now and will be available digitally and on demand December 4th.
Angel (Mario Casas) is an ambulance paramedic who gives off major creep vibes as he snatches souvenirs from the accident scenes he works. He himself becomes the patient after an accident leaves him paralyzed, and angry. His accident has guilted girlfriend Vane (Déborah François) into staying longer than she’d like, caring for him even as he spirals out of control, suspicion raging, spyware engaged, but unsurprisingly his insane jealousy does not endear him to her and she leaves. Angel was an angry guy before the accident and he’s angrier now. Angrier still to discover that Vane has taken up with his old paramedic partner Rodrigo (Guillermo Pfening) and they are expecting a baby together. Rodrigo, who was driving at the time of their accident, has stolen his life.
The beautiful thing about this movie is that it’s basically peak diversity. Not only is the main character disabled, the script offers equal opportunity serial killing. Anyone can murder if you make it accessible enough. He can’t enjoy sex anymore but he can stab syringes into basically anyone, which disables them enough to be handled. It’s genius, really, to turn the tables this way.
The Paramedic is dark and menacing well before Angel transforms into a murderous stalker. His injury doesn’t make him this way, it merely gives him the opportunity to indulge his most sinister thoughts.
It’s a slow burn, a thriller of a certain type, one you’ll no doubt recognize because we’ve seen shades of it many times before. It’s competent and well-acted but doesn’t distinguish itself from peers. Even if the quality’s variable, the character is chilling enough to give it a chance, and the final act just about justifies the whole watch. If you’re in the mood for a thriller, this is a viable option from Netflix.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Poe (Moises Arias) are friends, roommates and teenagers who’ve known each other since they were kids. They’ve been through a lot together and their bond is undeniable. When a third wheel, Will (Cole Sprouse), moves into the building, things begin to change.
Also worth noting: Stella, Poe, and Will are all CF patients, and the building in which they live is of course a hospital. They’re all living in the same ward but because of their disease, they aren’t allowed to come any closer to each other than 6 feet. Which puts a real damper on the budding romance between Stella and Will. Of course , the looming specter of their mortality is also boner-softening, I’d imagine.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a fatal genetic disease for which there is no cure. It affects mostly the digestive system and the lungs. It’s the progressive lung damage from chronic infection that usually gets them in the end. Average life expectancy is almost but not quite middle age.
So here is another entry in the dead or dying teenager trope, which is weirdly having a moment. Or maybe it’s always having a moment. Teenagers like to really heighten the stakes. These teenagers know their limits and why they exist, not that it makes it any easier to follow them. They’re not trying to endanger their lives, but they are trying to live them. A warrior nurse named Barb (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) will do everything she can to keep them going, and sometimes that pits her against them. I thought constantly about how hard that must be for her. She’s the one caring for them day in and day out, likely for years, and definitely for weeks and months at a time. She has more contact with them than any friends or family. But it’s not her job to match-make, or to chaperone dates. It’s to keep them alive another day.
CF patients may find it hard to fall in love. Their time outside hospitals is limited. Their time on earth is limited. But love between CF patients can’t happen at all because they must never, ever touch. Teenagers may find forbidden love irresistible, but this is a whole other level.
Like any good sports movie, The Rebound has an impressive training montage. The men push themselves to be stronger, go longer, play harder. They are fast, they are dedicated. They get up at ungodly hours to work out, and their grocery bills reflect their need to ‘feed the machine.’ But the stars of The Rebound aren’t your usual athletes.
In basketball, a rebound is when a player regains control of the ball after a shot is missed. It’s the second chance play. In the NWBA, the players contend with a different kind of rebound. It’s how a man picks himself up after a life-altering accident has left them paralyzed. The W stands for wheelchair.
This documentary follows a few key players on the Miami Heat Wheels as they push toward a national championship. But for the Wheels, it can never be as simple as playing well. Funding, for them, will always be an issue. The county gave them $2500 for the season when a trip to nationals alone will cost 11 grand. So between playing, traveling, and training, they’ll also be fund-raising.
Some of these men will discuss their accidents, and since many are a result of GSWs, they discuss, by extension, the need for gun control. Some of them are hoping to earn athletic scholarships for school. One is trying to break into the music industry. But they’re all really passionate about basketball, which is good, because when you’re strapped into a chair and careening at high-speeds on a court, the game looks brutal and dangerous. But they make it look easy. Physical, yes, but sometimes also surprisingly elegant.
Like lots of movies about sports, this documentary is about triumph over obstacles – it’s just that these athletes encounter challenges both on and off the courts.
Auggie is a very special little boy. Born with a genetic condition called Treacher Collins syndrome, Auggie’s facial deformities are the least threatening of the complications but they’re what make him look so different. He’s most comfortable when he’s wearing an astronaut helmet that keep prying eyes and hurtful comments at bay. For the first ten years of his life he’s had countless surgeries and has been schooled at home, but he’s about to start middle school for real, and a classroom of students is more daunting to him (and his mom) than any operating room.
Wonder is based on the wonderful YA novel by R.J. Palacio, which you should, should, should definitely, definitely read. But happily, this is a rare case where the movie does the book justice. And even happilier, the movie doesn’t suck, period, which was a major concern of mine. It seemed far too easy to just let it coast on its sentimentality. But while director Stephen Chbosky doesn’t have a lengthy track record to ease my worrisome nature, he does have one credit under his belt that’s all I really needed to hear: he adapted and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he’d also penned.
Wonder is a much different beast, however. First, it necessarily involves casting the perfect but very young star. A bad child actor in a lead role will ruin the whole thing, and in this case you have to find someone who can convey a whole range of complicated emotions from underneath a mask of scars. Chbosky went with Jacob Tremblay who’s already proven his chops with the most trying and powerful of roles in Room; Chbosky calls him “a once-in-a-generation talent” and I think he may be right. But we can’t discount the fact that Chbosky surrounds Tremblay with talent.
The secret to Wonder’s success, both in novel and in film, is that yes, it tells the story from the perspective of a sweet and brave 10 year old boy who’s been through hell and is still going through it. BUT it also shares the stories of the people around him. His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) has had to pause life itself in order to become his warrior. His father Nate (Owen Wilson) copes with humour and cries by himself. His big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) feels like a mere planet revolving around Auggie, the sun. A disease like Auggie’s is a family affair, energy-stealing, all-encompassing, leaving no one unaffected. And no one likes to complain about that because it seems petty in the face of something life-threatening, but it’s true and Palacio’s book as well as Chbosky’s film really add legitimacy to a family suffering as a unit. Even Auggie’s only friend isn’t untouched – being his friend is a social sacrifice most 10 year olds won’t be strong enough to make. Another formidable young actor, Suburbicon‘s Noah Jupe, lands and aces this role.
Wonder is not about the suffering though; that would be too easy. It’s about overcoming that suffering, in ways that are clunky and ungraceful and sometimes accidental. That’s why Auggie’s family seems so real, and why so many real families with sick kids can relate to the material. It’s emotionally raw stuff and you may find that it touches a nerve. But it’s got a takeaway message of positivity that’s irresistible, and will help justify the numerous soggy kleenexes in your lap.
Breathe is the directorial debut of motion-capture artist Andy Serkis, and if there was any justice in this world, it would be his last. [there isn’t: he’s already got a live-action Jungle Book slated next – but at least he seems uniquely qualified for that]
It’s the based-on-a-true-story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous, fun-loving couple who are brought low when Robin (Andrew Garfield) is suddenly and irrevocably paralyzed by polio. He wants to die, but she wants their unborn son to know him, so they compromise: she springs him from the hospital, and he does his best to stop being so gosh darn glum. He’s the first of his kind to live away from a hospital setting, and it’s thanks to the devotion of his wife (Claire Foy) and the ingenuity of a friend (Hugh Bonneville) that he’s able to do more than just survive.
So yes, there’s an inspiring story in there somewhere. This is Andrew Garfield’s most Eddie Redmayne role yet, but he can’t quite live up to those man-in-chair heights. As his character is paralyzed from the neck down, all he has to use is his face, and of course he overuses it. I liked Foy’s performance a lot better than Garfield’s. He came off as grating; Sean called it nearly unbearable. But he’s far from the only problem with the movie. First, the script is cloying, predictable, and overly sentimental. It’s an emotional predator, designed to wring tears from your face. I refused to comply. It hits the all-too familiar beats of a biopic and doesn’t stray once from conventional story-telling. But Andy Serkis’s direction does stray from the norm, and from the tolerable. It’s shot in an ultrawide aspect ratio that I hated. I felt like I was watching a skinny rectangle at best, but often felt as though I was viewing the movie through a fishbowl. Serkis’ angles are often weird, and not quirky weird, but uncomfortable and off-putting. But I suppose the worst crimes against this little against-all-odds love story is that Serkis rushes through the prologue, the courtship, the thing that should make us understand why this guy deserves so much devotion, why their love is so strong that she’s willing to wipe his shitty bum and go without sex for the rest of her life in order to keep a suicidal man alive. It’s a crap life for her. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, just that it’s always going to be difficult. And I realized that though there are seemingly lots of movies about men being tended by loyal wives, the same is not true in reverse. Husbands cut and run. So really the movie’s most interesting character is Diana, and we know little about her. We don’t see any of her struggles or her inner life. In fact, for Breathe’s 117 minute runtime, I’m not sure we got to know anyone particularly well in this movie. And that’s really too bad.
Maudie was born “funny” – sharp in her mind but infirm in her body. She is discounted, invisible to the world. Abused then neglected by her brother, his monthly sum to her caretaker aunt doesn’t mean the aunt is nice to her, not at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising when Maudie seeks to improve her situation by lending herself out as a housemaid. The only person who’d have her is an ornery (possibly autistic, in a time way before that would be diagnosed) fishmonger who lives out in rural Nova Scotia.
Maudie (Sally Hawkins) and Everett (Ethan Hawke) are a couple of odd socks – the world has discarded them and they do not belong together but for lack of anything better have somehow become a pair. Their relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into romance but their mutual tolerance and sometime thoughtfulness or generosity does translate into a partnership of sorts, and marriage. And while Maudie may neglect her household chores, she blossoms in Everett’s house as a painter. Her arthritis makes it increasingly hard to even hold a brush but her joyful spirit paints their modest, one-room home in bright, colourful designs. Soon the community around her will embrace her for it. Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Canada’s best known folk artists.
Sally Hawkins is phenomenal. She underplays everything because she can, because she can rely upon her talent to communicate big things in small ways. Her eyebrows alone are Oscar worthy. Her smile is reminiscent of the real Maud – wide and innocent. She gives such dignity to this character who really led a simple life, a life of poverty, but a life that was more than enough for a woman who needed only some space and a paint brush in her hand to feel happy. Maudie is not just a tribute to the artist, but to her way of life. I was moved by this film, for Maud specifically and women generally, for anyone who was marginalized and squashed and found a way to bloom anyway.