Last week, I got a chance to watch the recently-released Netflix original movie, The Fundamentals of Caring. It is about a teenager named Trevor who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Craig Roberts) and his home health aide, Ben (Paul Rudd). They take a road trip together, and they also pick up some new friends along the way (Selena Gomez, Megan Ferguson).
Many in the disability community have praised the film for its realistic depiction of life with a disability, which is much more accurate than Hollywood can usually pull off. However, the choice to cast a non-disabled actor as Trevor does not sit well with disability advocates.
There are few opportunities for actors with visible disabilities to play a leading character in a movie. Every time an able-bodied actor is cast as a disabled character, one of these rare opportunities is squandered.
At the same time, every disabled film character also provides another kind of opportunity: a chance to create an accurate, empowering portrayal of a person with a disability. In a world of stereotypes and discrimination, we need such portrayals to change how our society views people with disabilities.
The Fundamentals of Caring takes on that challenge, and, to a large extent, it succeeds. The movie avoids the trap of stereotyping that so many others fall into. Trevor is not an object of pity or a “supercrip” with exceptional abilities that “make up for” his disability. Nor is he the “angry cripple” who hates everyone.
Trevor is an intelligent young man who is sensitive and caring, albeit beneath a rude and inconsiderate exterior. He also has a sense of humor, but his jokes and pranks are often at other people’s expense. In other words, he is a three-dimensional character who is neither all good nor all bad.
Along with some funny moments, the relatively realistic portrayal of disability was enough to make the movie enjoyable for me. Since I have the same condition as Trevor does, I know that most of the details (down to the specific medications he takes) are accurate. A few things are wrong, but most things are right.
I am left with one question that still bothers me. Is a (mostly) accurate depiction of life with a disability enough to make a movie good?
The consensus among mainstream movie reviewers seems to be that this is a quirky, heartwarming tale that ends up being too saccharine and predictable to be truly good.
Personally, I enjoyed watching it, but reading some of those lukewarm and negative reviews made me wonder: are we setting the bar too low? Are we praising mediocre movies just for portraying disability “pretty well?”
I reluctantly have to answer yes. But it’s actually the right thing to do. We need to reward filmmakers for putting in the effort to make disabled characters into something more than stereotypes.
Once movies start to do a better job of portraying disability, we can start to be more critical of plot, dialogue, acting and cinematography. But for the time being, well-written disabled characters are the exception, not the rule. Movies that do disability right deserve to be praised, regardless of their overall quality.
Fortunately, The Fundamentals of Caring is not only great at depicting disability. It is also a good movie in its own right. It is not the best movie you will ever see, but it holds its own.