So, this past weekend I watched “The Fundamentals of Caring” on Netflix, with more than a little trepidation (even though one of the stars is Paul Rudd, one of my favourite actors.) This post contains major spoilers for that movie, so considered yourself warned.
I say “with more than a little trepidation” because Hollywood doesn’t tend to “get it” when it comes to movies about disabled people, and because The Guardian’s review of “The Fundamentals of Caring” savaged the movie – not specifically because of its portrayal of a disabled person, but because the film is conceptually tired and very predictable: quirky people bonding/learning about themselves/breaking out of maladaptive patterns and transforming their lives on some journey that involves a a road trip at some point, a la films like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Garden State” (both, like “The Fundamentals of Caring”, films that debuted at Sundance.) It’s a dying genre, the review notes, and the films that currently represent it either have to have a lot of star power to get going, or leads with great chemistry (which Rudd and actor Craig Roberts, who plays disabled Trevor, have in spades).
The Guardian is right about these things. “The Fundamentals of Caring” is basically predictable, at least in some ways. I really liked “Little Miss Sunshine” (I don’t remember a lot about “Garden State”…Zack Braff, I think?) so I could live with the “life-changing road trip” trope. I actually liked the way it was used in “The Fundamentals of Caring”. But what I liked even better was the way that the movie dared to show a person (a young adult – Trevor has advanced Duchenne muscular dystrophy, uses a wheelchair, and requires a significant amount of assistance with activities of daily living) who’s really just an asshole. Not an irredeemable asshole, but the sort of smug, late-teen smart ass who thinks that faking that he’s choking on a bite of Slim Jim and scaring the shit out of his caregiver is hilarious. And it also dared to show a relationship where when the disabled person is an asshole, someone calls him on it.
That’s just refreshing. Because, despite what we’re told by movies and television and writing that calls disabled people angels and implies that they’re perpetually happy and joyous and “incapable of deception” (direct quote from a person in my town about a person with Down Syndrome), some disabled people are miserable to be around, and disability does not give them a free pass when it comes to treating other people miserably.
Let’s take this example between Trevor and and his new caregiver Ben (Rudd), where Trevor is deliberately trying to get under Ben’s skin.
Trevor: Who do you think would win in a fight to the death? Me? Or a bird?
(Ben stares at the TV, looking pained)
Trevor: How about me versus a lot of birds, but all the birds had muscular dystrophy?
Ben: I think a bunch of birds with muscular dystrophy are fucking you up.
We don’t expect disabled people to be assholes. We don’t expect non-disabled people in particular to dare to actually say something about it (because disabled people have it so hard already that non-disabled people should just overlook it if they’re impolite or mean, right?) The subversion of the expectations is both jarring and humourous, and carried out very nicely by Rudd and Roberts.
Not that “The Fundamentals of Caring” doesn’t have flaws besides being predictable.
Some Issues With “The Fundamentals of Caring”
Craig Roberts isn’t disabled, which sticks in the craw of most disability advocates (and rightly so). If you’ve never heard this argument and can’t see why this is upsetting, consider how offensive society would find it if a black character was played by a white actor in blackface, as Dr. Frances Ryan wrote in The Guardian after actor Eddie Redmayne won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. Leading roles in movies are already at a premium for talented disabled actors, and they can’t even get them when they come along. It’s a much bigger issue than people think, and it gets barely any attention in the mainstream media. If you doubt me, think about the major movies featuring disabled characters, think about the actors who played the characters, and think about the awards they got:
- “Rainman” – Dustin Hoffman gets Best Actor Oscar for portrayal of autistic man
- “My Left Foot” – Daniel Day Lewis gets Best Actor Oscar for portrayal of man with cerebral palsy
- “A Beautiful Mind” – Russell Crowe gets Best Actor Golden Globe for portrayal of John Nash, a schizophrenic professor and economic theorist.
- “The Theory of Everything” – Eddie Redmayne gets Best Actor Golden Globe for portrayal of Stephen Hawking
- “Ray” – Jamie Foxx gets Best Actor Oscar for portrayal of Ray Charles
So, this is an issue.
Other issues include Ben’s caregiver technique. Granted, I don’t know the standards for lifts and transfers in the US. But I was taught that safely lifting even a older child, say, from a bed to another surface requires either two people or a mechanical lift, or you’re risking dropping the individual on the short term and back damage on the long term. It’s not totally clear what Trevor’s age is meant to be, but he doesn’t attend school, so presumably he’s at least 18 and fully grown – Ben should not be lifting him alone. Picky point? Maybe. But I wouldn’t want to be a wheelchair user in trouble somewhere and have someone assume that it’s okay to try to lift me unassisted because he or she saw it done easily in a movie. It’s not safe.
Nor would I want people assuming that the solution to an accessibility issue is to have people push/pull a disabled person in their electric wheelchair up a flight of stairs. That is absolutely not something to be modeled for comedic value.
And there were plot points that made me :headdesk:. We learn, once Ben approaches Trevor’s mother with the idea about the road trip to see the World’s Deepest Pit, that Trevor has never been more than an hour from his house. I truly almost cried.
But then I thought, “What a discussion-generator!”
Discussion Questions for “The Fundamentals of Caring
I don’t know if the people involved in “The Fundamentals of Caring” intended to pack it as chock-full of jumping off points for discussion as they did, but here are the ones that occurred to me as I watched:
- Name some media stereotypes of disabled people in this movie, and some stereotypes of disabled people generally. How does Ben react to these stereotypes? The hitchhikers? Trevor’s family? Other characters?
- Comment on Trevor’s mother. Is she ableist? Does she realize it? Why can’t she see that she’s ableist, or why does she continue to act in an ableist manner if she can see it?
- Are there other ableist characters or examples of ableism in the movie? Is is deliberate?
- Does Trevor have some internalized ableism? Why or why not? If so, what contributed to it? What contributed the most to it?
- Comment on Trevor and the idea of dignity of risk. Who was the most scared of the idea of Trevor going on a road trip? Why do you think that was?
- Comment on Trevor and the idea of self-determination. Even though it’s hard to deny that the trip would be good for Trevor, should he have been forced to go when he was obviously so uncomfortable with the idea?
- Is Ben a good caregiver? Is the relationship appropriate?
- What is the role of a professional caregiver?
- How much training should professional caregivers have? What they should be paid per hour?
- Should businesses that aren’t accessible be penalized in some way?
- Is Trevor a positive portrayal of a disabled person? Why or why not?
- Why do you suppose the title of the movie was changed from the that of the novel it was based on (“The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”)?
And, of course, you need not ask or answer any of these questions. If you can get past the genre (which apparently The Guardian couldn’t), “The Fundamentals of Caring” is quite enjoyable. I was surprised at how genuinely funny I found it, how few moments of disability-related-“Oh my God that’s SO WRONG” moments there were, and how many times I went “Oh! Teachable moment!”
I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed a movie about disability for quite some time.
“The Fundamentals of Caring” is currently streaming on Netflix.
Addendum: After reading this interview with the film’s writer-director, I’m amazed that “The Fundamentals of Caring” turned out as well as it did. Rob Burnett most emphatically doesn’t “get it”.