5. The Black Balloon (Dir: Elissa Down, 2008)
This Australian drama won six Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Picture, screenplay and director for Elissa Down. The film was inspired by Down’s childhood growing up with two brothers with autism, and brilliantly and authentically depicts the relationship between Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield) and his autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford). Their mother, Maggie (Toni Collette) struggles to cope, particularly as the emotional gulf between her sons widens and explosive tensions set in.
The Black Balloon incisively and movingly portrays an even-handed study of two brothers whose development and needs are shifting quite differently. Thomas resents Charlie and feels enormous pressure to support him and his mother through very challenging times. For Maggie, it’s hard to deal with Charlie’s anger towards his brother, which threatens to cause irreparable damage to their fragile family.
For so many families supporting a child with a severe disability, these issues of sibling resentment and rivalry, and feeling that their loved one is a burden can be quite emotionally devastating. The Black Balloon’s authentic screenplay, strong performances and vivid portrayal of autism, is emotionally compelling.
Charlie is chaotic, loud and prone to mood swings; he’s sometimes inappropriate, even disgustingly so. The film feels real because it comes from a place of honesty and reality in the director’s real life. It never short-changes the audience on drama, but remains grounded; subtly and powerfully portraying the character’s struggles without exploitative histrionics.
Any brother or sister of a person with a disability will empathise. For many there is a feeling that life has somehow landed an unfair blow on not only their sibling; feeling alienated and lacking in their own emotional support and attention, siblings can lash out; especially when, like Thomas, they’re called upon to constantly placate angry neighbours and subdue a sibling in the throes of uncontrollable emotional outbursts.
For Thomas, the trauma is particularly acute growing up as a teenager, with his father – crucially, an older male role model – away with the Army. Hormones rage, the desire for independence from family is stronger, in a bid to maintain a personal sense of identity.
Thomas’ furtive relationship with the beautiful local girl, Jackie (Gemma Ward), is stymied by his insecurity towards Charlie’s disability in pivotal scenes; when Jackie drops by Thomas’ home; during dinner; and on a bushwalk.
Jackie is an inquisitive character, beautifully played by Ward, a model with limited acting experience. She wants a closer relationship with Thomas and she accepts Charlie, though is increasingly frustrated by Thomas’ anger towards his brother, and his seeming inability to accept him.
This is ultimately the film’s simple and powerfully resonant theme: can Thomas come to terms with his brother’s disability – growing in maturity and starting a new romance – and start to see his brother through eyes of compassion and brotherly love?
4. MurderBall (Dir: Dana Adam Shapiro, Henry Alex Rubin, 2005)
The fiercely competitive nature of elite sportsmen is front-and-centre of this wildly entertaining sports documentary. The fact that these athletes have disabilities is but part of a wider story of fierce rivalry and even bigger personalities. In the world of wheelchair rugby, men like the goateed, muscular Mark Zupan are rock stars; with inward steel to match their looks and wild demeanour.
Murderball, Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin’s documentary features members of Team USA, whose goal since sustaining spinal cord injuries and becoming Quadriplegics is to excel at professional wheelchair rugby, dubbed Murderball.
Seated in custom-designed wheelchairs – a cross between Mad Max steam-punk design and a gladiatorial chariot — Zupan and his teammates crash and smash into one another, in a sport that’s notoriously aggressive. Tying in to this aggression is the rivalry between the USA and Canadian Rugby Teams between games in 2002 in Sweden and the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
Joe Soares, former Team USA star player and coach, is portrayed as angry and bitter at his treatment by his team, and so decides to do the unthinkable: he defects to coach the Canadians. Even years later, the wounds are still fresh and Soares is the target of hatred and vitriol when the two teams rematch in Athens.
Murderball doesn’t sugar-coat the attitudes of these athletes or portray a kinder, softer side of people with disabilities; these men are cocky, often arrogant and extremely dedicated to this professional sport.
The physical strength of these men doing battle on the court is stirring and the shattering clashes of wheelchairs bashing headlong into the fray is shocking. That is until the realisation hits: to these men the exertion bumps and bruises are the stuff of life. The film chronicles in frank, quite explicit detail the individual stories of men with spinal cord injuries.
The athletes unflinchingly talk about their injuries; public perceptions regarding their disabilities; their sex lives with able-bodied girlfriends; and also show audiences how they go about mundane, daily things such as getting into a shower.
But all this is merely the basic stuff of life; what gives these men’s lives real meaning to them is their love of their family, friends, girlfriends and the dangerous, competitive game to which they dedicate their careers. The film also gives us a glimpse inside rehab for a man newly injured; handling his story with sensitivity as the camera shows his despair and also his drive to adjust to his new life.
Murderball, passionate and memorably compelling, represents these men in wheelchairs as, first and foremost, men: with strong emotions, flaws and passions just like any other.
3. The Sessions (Dir: Ben Lewin, 2012)
Polish-born Australian director, Ben Lewin, contracted polio at the age of six. He went on to have a distinguished film and television career in Australia, Europe and the United States.
Lewin’s American feature, The Sessions, is the true story of poet, Mark O’Brien (an astonishing John Hawkes) who similarly contracted Polio and was paralysed from the neck down; living in an iron lung. The Sessions isn’t a biopic; nor does it focus on O’Brien’s career. The film deals with an issue that few films address: sexual desire in people with disabilities.
O’Brien, a Catholic, struggled with the moral implications of his desire to lose his virginity, turning to his parish priest (William H. Macy) for guidance. O’Brien’s frank conversations with Fr. Brendan, and Macy’s amusing performance, offer a welcome note of levity that’s critical to show that O’Brien’s needs as a man with a disability are no less significant. O’Brien ultimately enlists the services of sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt).
Hunt’s performance is most critical for audiences to genuinely engage with the reality of sex with a person with a disability. Cheryl is a real, complex woman with her own sexual and emotional needs. Yet, she empathises with O’Brien, guiding him through psychological barriers inhibiting him from a fulfilling sexual experience.
Hunt’s full-frontal nudity is appropriately matter-of-fact, and her undaunted attitude is important to show audiences that sex with a person with a disability isn’t taboo, scary or, indeed, impossible. The Sessions highlights, with honesty, humour and sensitivity, that every person – regardless of disability – is capable of this strong, human connection.
2. The Waterdance (Dir: Neal Jiminez, Michael Steinberg, 1993)
Few disabled filmmakers make feature films seen around the world. So for Neal Jiminez, The Waterdance is a great achievement. Jiminez, who co-wrote and directed the film (with Michael Steinberg) sustained a spinal cord injury while hiking in 1984, and became a paraplegic.
His experiences at a multi-ethnic rehabilitation facility form the basis for The Waterdance, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 1992, and Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Frank, authentic and challengingly direct, The Waterdance never sensationalises or patronises its characters.
Several affecting scenes are more powerful because of this matter-of-fact, warts and all, perspective on disability. Eric Stoltz plays novelist, Joel Garcia, whose life is forever changed in a hiking accident. He is forced to re-evaluate his life, including his relationship with Anna (a wonderfully open-hearted Helen Hunt), who has contemplated leaving her husband for Garcia.
A scene where Garcia and his able-bodied girlfriend decide to resume their lovemaking for the first time since his accident – only to be rudely interrupted by his bladder incontinence – resonates because of Anna’s lack of disgust; her response is pragmatic, solution-oriented and empathetic.
Lively performances, especially by Wesley Snipes as a gung-ho man in a wheelchair hiding his insecurities behind brash humour ensure the film never wallows in its potentially maudlin subject or becomes a “message movie”. Rather, The Waterdance depicts real people coping with life’s difficult cards as best they can. Sometimes with anger and indignation; other times with strength, humility, humour and hope.
1. The Elephant Man (Dir: David Lynch, 1980)
Initially, John Merrick’s life as a young man with severe disabilities in London at the turn of the 20th Century is dehumanising and entirely devoid of dignity and compassion. Abandoned by his mother, Merrick (John Hurt) is sold into a circus freak show run by the abusive Bytes; becoming the subject of morbid exploitation for paying customers.
And when Dr. Fredrick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) buys Merrick’s freedom to treat him in London Hospital for his interning medical students, Merrick is considered purely as a figure of medical curiosity. Finally though, Treves begins to recognise the eloquent, intelligent and sensitive man behind the gross disfigurement, and brings him out of the shadows into London’s high society, with the love and support of respected theatre actress, Mrs. Kendall (Anne Bancroft).
The Elephant Man is not about John Merrick’s courage, rising well above such trite cliché. The Elephant Man is a film of compassion and dignity for humanity, which transcends disability.
Based not on the celebrated Broadway stage show, but on the actual researched events of Merrick’s life, The Elephant Man was produced by none other than funny-man Mel Brooks’ production company, who ingeniously hired David Lynch to direct. Lynch imbues the film with a dreamy quality and movingly contrasts this tone with the reality of Merrick’s struggle for acceptance.
Freddie Francis’ evocative black and white cinematography captures the dawn of the Industrial Age in London, with its belching smokestacks and “mechanical accidents”; the mechanised, inhuman backdrop juxtaposed against the raw, imperfectly human figure of John Merrick.
Author Bio: John Catania is a professional freelance film reviewer, who has written for a variety of street press, online and print publications. Currently, John contributes to Empire Magazine Australasia. He is the founder of “reviews from the chair” – film reviews and movie news – on Facebook.