The Fundamentals of Caring


Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

(2016) Dramedy (Netflix) Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Julia Denton, Megan Ferguson, Samantha Huskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Ehle, Donna Briscoe, Alex Huff, Alex Boell, Bill Murphey, Frederick Weller, Matt Mercurio, Robert Walker Branchaud, Eric Singer, James Donaldio, Matthew Pruitt, Ashley White, Kristi Von. Directed by Rob Burnett

 

One of the truths about caregiving is that often the caregiver receives from their charge as much if not more than they give to them. That isn’t always the case, but most of the time we see things in those whose care we are charged with that change how we see ourselves.

Ben Benjamin (Rudd) is entering the field of caregiving after having spent most of his life as a novelist. He has been unable to write following a tragedy that left him devastated and he and his wife (Denton) on the brink of divorce. Picking up the pieces, he wants to help someone in need rather than just bag groceries or flip burgers.

His first client is Trevor (Roberts), a young man with Muscular Dystrophy and  a frazzled mom (Ehle). His American dad abandoned the two of them; the two ex-pat Brits are also starting over in Seattle, with mom working for a major bank but going through caregivers as caustic Trevor is a bit of a handful, with a penchant for playing practical jokes and insulting those closest around him.

Ben urges the routine-bound Trevor to get out of the house; Trevor has a fondness for cheesy American tourist traps, particularly those things that advertise themselves as the “Biggest” anything. Ben knows that watching specials on the Travel Channel is nothing compared to seeing these plays in person in all their chintzy glory. With mom getting ready to go on a business trip to Atlanta, Ben begins planning a road trip of his own with Trevor. At first, mom is appalled but eventually relents.

They pick up a foul-mouthed hitchhiker on the way, a comely girl named Dot (Gomez) who is headed to Denver and art school. They also pick up another stray, the very pregnant Peaches (Ferguson) whose husband is overseas. On Trevor’s say-so, this ragtag group makes a detour to Salt Lake City to confront Trevor’s no-account used car dealer dad (Weller) but eventually they make it to the Nirvana of Trevor’s bucket list – America’s biggest pit. Yes, he aspires to see a tourist attraction that is essentially a great big hole in the ground.

Trevor and Ben are in fact mirror images of one another; both are bitter at the hand life has dealt them and both have been shutting out others, using their sense of humor and/or grief to push the world away from them. The caregiving has, by movie’s end, gone both ways; Ben is able to move on and Trevor is able to live life more fully. That’s a bit of a Hollywood cliché and I’m not sure that was what the Jonathan Evison novel, which I haven’t read, intended.

One of a handful of projects that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that was picked up for theatrical and streaming distribution by Netflix, the movie has a somewhat accelerated pace that makes one feel like Burnett (who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel) was trying to cram too much into an hour and a half. The pace of the story isn’t organic at all as the closed-off Trevor seems to accept Ben way too easily, while for his part Ben who started off the movie sullen and uncommunicative seems to open up much faster in the film than humans usually do; there’s no sense of progression, only that the filmmakers wanted the relationship to reach the stage where the road trip could begin quickly.

Rudd is one of the most charming actors in Hollywood; he is so likable onscreen that even in off-beat roles (which are often the ones he takes) he still manages to capture your rooting interest. Here, it starts off with Ben deep in the throes of depression and the character is morose and grief-stricken. It doesn’t take long for Rudd to shine through even in those extreme circumstances and in some ways that’s not a good idea; Ben’s grief is part of the central aspects of his character and he seems to pull out of it way too quickly. It isn’t until the movie ends in fact that we realize that the movie has been about Ben all along and Trevor is the caregiver; the title is about how they both learn to care about life but the focus is certainly on Ben. Rudd pulls that aspect of it off well.

The movie is riddled with cliches and is predictable throughout. Gomez with her baby face looks is somewhat miscast as the fiercely independent Dot, while the character of Peaches seems to be unnecessary baggage. Cannavale turns up in an uncredited glorified cameo as Dot’s father who turns out to be following his daughter, making sure she gets to Denver all right.

I expected a bit more out of this film than it delivered. I enjoyed the road trip dynamic but there was no build up to it that would have given the personal growth more meaning. It just seemed to be too rote for a movie that came out of the independent pedigree it had. This could have easily been a remarkable film about the nature of caregiving, but in the end the script doesn’t serve the subject matter well. Netflix subscribers who are Paul Rudd films should check it out if they haven’t already; if you can take or leave Rudd, you are well-advised to find better movies to stream on the home video giant.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Rudd is as charming as always. Some fun road film moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels really rushed. The scrip is somewhat pedantic.-
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, sexually suggestive content and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rudd and Cannavale both appeared in Ant-Man last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jack of the Red Hearts
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The BFG

Jack of the Red Hearts


Famke Janssen prays for strength.

Famke Janssen prays for strength.

(2015) Drama (ARC Entertainment) AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, John D’Leo, Sophia Anne Caruso, Drena De Niro, Chris Jarell, Tonye Patano, Maria Rivera, Preston Fritz Smith, Ana Maria Jomoica, Stephen Hill, Nan Lynn Nelson, Harry Sutton Jr., Drena De Niro, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jenny Jaffe, Brianna Mann, Christine Toy Johnson. Directed by Janet Grillo

Autism is something that is often written about and occasionally depicted on the movie screen but rarely does it show what it means day to day to a family with an autistic child, particularly a low-functioning one. As the mom here snaps at an insensitive remark about her autistic daughter, “She’s not Rain Man.” Sadly, the movies give an image of autism as a kind of cute disease turning the folks that have it into happy idiots. That’s as far from the truth as can be.

Jack (Robb) is a street-smart, street-tough kid who has just turned 18. She and her sister Coke (Caruso) have been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention for years. Jack’s probation officer (Patano) is pretty much fed up with her and is ready to send her to adult jail this time, now that she’s old enough. Jack wants nothing more than to get Coke out of the system so the two can live together and take care of each other.

But Jack’s going to need money to get an apartment for them if that’s going to happen and something more stable – a real job that pays well, but Jack has no employment experience. With the help of a friend she connives her way as a caregiver into the household of Kay (Janssen), Mark (Cohen), Robert (Broussard) and autistic Glory (Richardson).

The bills have been piling up and they can no longer afford Kay staying home and caring for Glory, but the child needs full-time supervision and the family needs two incomes and quite frankly, Kay needs the break, worn down from caring for a child who is no easy task. Jack, a born hustler, convinces the actual applicant (Jaffe) to leave her resume and references with her and then Jack assumes the identity of Donna, a well-qualified caregiver. Of course, Jack knows nothing about caring for an autistic 11-year-old but she figures how hard can it be?

Well, any actual parent of an autistic child will tell you that it can be terrifyingly hard. Autistic kids, depending on the type of autism, can lash out, go into trance-like states, be stubborn as mules, obsess with odd items, require rigid conformity and/or act out in very violent and public ways, often when it is least convenient. The thing the movie gets right is that caring for a child who has difficulty functioning can break a parent down; this is their child whom they love and they can’t hold a conversation with them, or at least only a rudimentary one. It requires extreme patience and an amazing amount of love.

What it doesn’t require is a stock character from an Afterschool Special who is about as badass as Taylor Swift saving the day. The script is riddled with clichés and as predictable as the Cubs missing the playoffs. Robb is a talented actress but she is reduced to face-scrunching, high-level mugging and when called upon to smoke (which she does because, you know, street kid) she’s the most unconvincing smoker ever, clearly not inhaling. I’d much rather that Jack be a non-smoker than be an approximation of one.

I’ve met several autistic kids in my life, some more high functioning than others but Richardson is completely unconvincing in the role. Her smile is like she’s posing for a head shot and when she’s screaming and acting out, I don’t see in her performance how incredibly intense this acting out can be. The best way to think about it is that she’s pretending to smile rather than actually smiling. Now, I’m fully aware that every autistic kid is different and some may well smile like they’re in a toy commercial, but it comes off as non-genuine here and it is distracting overall to the movie. Richardson has a history of playing Annie onstage, so you know she’s got talent, but this was a definite misfire and I blame the director, who should know better.

I liked Janssen’s performance as the long-suffering mom. Janssen clearly gets how stressed out Kay is and how bone-weary she is. When Janssen gets the chance to act with silence, she is marvelous – conveying far more of the parental experience with her eyes and her facial expression than the script is doing. Sadly there is so much that the script does that stops the movie dead in its tracks, like a family sing-along that feels completely in-authentic and the denouement in which is exactly what you think it will be. Even the plot twists aren’t twists so much as lane changes.

I really give the filmmakers credit for wanting to make a film about how autism affects the entire family, and there is a great movie to be made on the subject, but this really isn’t it. Too many predictable plot points, unconvincing acting from the two actors who needed to be at their best and just pedestrian filmmaking torpedo what should have been a compelling film. Janssen’s performance is worth checking out but that only takes the movie so far; a very mild and disappointing recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Janssen is compelling as the mom. An inside look at the life of a family with an autistic child.
REASONS TO STAY: With a predictable movie-of-the-week plot, loses some of its credibility. Robb and Richardson give subpar performances.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of teen misbehavior, adult subject matter, teen smoking and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grillo in real life is the mother of an autism spectrum child.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Legendary

I Believe in Unicorns


This is what every Disney princess longs for.

This is what every Disney princess longs for.

(2014) Drama (Animals on Parade) Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff, Justin Hall, Sam O’Gotti, Johnny Sequoyah, Eric A. H. Watson. Directed by Leah Meyerhoff

Florida Film Festival 2014

I am not a teenage girl. I have never been a teenage girl. I will never be a teenage girl. On the surface, I’m exactly the wrong guy to review this movie. However, I do have the benefit of having a wife who was once a teenage girl and her insights have been very helpful in writing this.

Davina (Dyer) is not your typical teenage girl – if there is such a thing. Her mom (T. Meyerhoff) is confined to a wheelchair. She’d been diagnosed with a debilitating disease and with her marriage on the rocks, she hoped a baby might make her husband stay. It didn’t.

So Davina is her mom’s caregiver on top of having to deal with normal teenage stuff – boy craziness, needing to find herself in a world that doesn’t necessarily want you to do anything more than conform, the fear that nobody will find you attractive, the fear that somebody will. On top of that she cooks and cleans and takes care of her mom’s needs. To escape her life, she has an active imagination in which unicorns exist and do battle with monsters, but she needs more than a fantasy life. Something has to give.

In a local park, Davina observes a skater boy named Sterling (Vack). He’s really cute. A hunk, even. She envies his free spirit. He admires her beauty. She’s a virgin but doesn’t necessarily want to stay that way. A tipping point is reached. She and Sterling run away, destination anywhere but there.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that in many ways the female teen audience has been underserved. Hollywood seems content to give them Twilight clones and while that might be plentiful box office, it doesn’t really give them any insight into themselves, into the things they are going through. You know, life. Sure there are occasional movies with bitchy cheerleader cliques and high school angst but those movies have a tendency to lack any sort of reality, or even empathy.

So you’d think I’d be breaking out the champagne and party hats for a movie like this and to an extent, but that isn’t the case. I’d really, really like to, because I think the movie can be valuable to parents and their daughters, but I have a few issues with it. I will be the first to tell you that some of them might be a little unfair.

Seeing as many films as I do, you get a sense of some of the cliches that independent films are rife with. One of them is the confusion between child-like and childish. Now your definitions may vary but I define the former as possession of the wonder that a child experiences and the latter as doing whatever occurs to you without thought of consequence. While I get that the characters here are little more than children, their behavior is completely childish. It can get grating, particularly when they get all indie-cute and start running around fields like maniacs, laughing and acting childish. I wouldn’t mind so much if I hadn’t seen the same kind of scene in dozens of indie films in the past couple of years alone. I found these scenes distracting and annoying and veteran filmgoers probably will too.

I do think that the unicorn sequences which are mainly stop-motion animation are clever and imaginative and they are likely some of the most memorable things about the film. Vack plays Sterling a little bit too much with dude-ness which may irritate anybody outside the California state lines, but Dyer does a bang-up job as Davina and even though she too got on my nerves with her actions sometimes, so would any teenager I hung out with for more than an hour.

So it will come as no shock to you, dear reader, that my wife loved this movie much more than I did. I fully intended to give this a much more scathing review but she prevailed upon me with some fairly logical points and said in her gentle but firm way that just because I’m not the audience this film is meant for doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid experience for someone else. Fair enough, but that then leads to the conclusion that this movie isn’t for everybody and I honestly think it could have been. I’m not saying have the young kids act like responsible adults – that wouldn’t be realistic – but make them less cliche indie film characters. Then maybe it becomes less of a film for a certain age and gender bracket but one we can all share – and perhaps learn from. Even so, this should be mandatory viewing for teenage girls and those who love them.

REASONS TO GO: Teen girls will find this compelling. Some interesting images. Unicorn animations are fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on indie sass. The immaturity of the leads may be grating on some. More childish than child-like.

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasional swearing, teen drinking and partying as well as some frank teen sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Meyerhoff, who plays Davina’s mother, is actually the director’s mother and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before her birth. She has been in a wheelchair ever since and the director’s experiences growing up as her mother’s caretaker was the inspiration for this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Yellow

50/50


50/50

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt try to out-bemuse one another.

(2011) Dramedy (Summit) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, Serge Houde, Andrew Airlie, Donna Yamamoto, Sugar Lyn Beard, Yee Jee Tso, Sarah Smyth. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Cancer is a terrifying disease. It brings forth visions of chemotherapy, radiation, hair falling out, nausea and wasting away until death. It is a punishing, painful, horrible disease that kills slowly; it is Guantanamo Bay among diseases.

Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) is 26 years old. He has a girlfriend that he’s just getting serious about – the beautiful Rachael (Howard) – a decent job producing features for NPR in Seattle, and Kyle (Rogen), a great friend that keeps Adam grounded. Adam rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke, jogs and exercises regularly and has his entire life ahead of him.

He also has nagging back pain so he goes to the Doctor (Airlie) to check it out. Thinking he’s going to get a prescription for some pain medication or a regimen of stretching exercises, he almost can’t process what he really does get – a diagnosis for a rare form of cancer on his spine. The tumor is too large to safely remove it surgically; Adam is going to have to undergo chemotherapy to reduce it before it can be taken out. It’s going to be a long, painful road to recovery – assuming he survives at all. According to the Internet, he has a 50/50 shot at surviving.

The cancer affects all of Adam’s friends and family in different ways. His overwrought mom (Huston) who is already caring for Adam’s dad (Houde) who is in the throes of Alzheimer’s Disease, wants to move in and care for Adam. Rogen wants to keep Adam’s spirits up and use his disease as a means to pick up girls. And Rachael? Her nurturing side seems to be out in full force but there are some deer-in-the-headlight moments. There is also Katherine (Kendrick), Adam’s pretty but inexperienced therapist. Even though Kyle reassures Adam that if he were a casino game he’d have the best odds, Adam is fully aware that he has the same chance at dying as he does at living.

The movie is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, who underwent a very similar ordeal contracting a rare form of cancer as a young man. He got through it largely with the help of his best friend in real life – Seth Rogen, who urged him to put his experience down as a screenplay. It sure makes one look at Rogen differently.

One of the things I admired about the movie is that it didn’t make Adam a heroic martyr facing his disease with dignity. No, instead it puts him through all the stages of dealing with the disease from denial to rage. Adam is at times overwhelmed by his situation and lashes out. It helps that Gordon-Levitt imbues the character with an inner decency and kindness, leading the audience to form a real bond with the character and a rooting interest for him to beat the disease. Some are calling this Oscar-caliber acting and I can’t say as I disagree.

There are strong performances all throughout the cast, including Frewer and Hall as fellow cancer patients of Adam’s who share weed-laced macaroons and the wisdom – and gallows humor – of facing a deadly disease. Katherine is chipper and unconfident in her abilities, making her a winning and sweet character and Kendrick excels at that sort of thing. Howard gets a thankless role that she runs with; it is one of several that she’s played this year in which she’s served notice that she’s a talent to be reckoned with and one whose performances I look forward to.

Rogen however is at his best here. Yes, the role is not unlike those he’s played before in Judd Apatow movies but obviously this is a part that means something to him personally. One wonders how hard it must have been for Rogen to re-enact what had to be some very painful moments in his life. It’s a terrific performance and I hope a sign that Rogen is going to rise above some of the stereotypes he’s created for himself in his career.

This is a movie that will have you riding an emotional roller coaster. It’s wickedly funny in places and in others, you’ll be reaching for the hankie. There’s one scene where Adam, who has been doing his best to hold it together, finally falls apart in Kyle’s car; another where he finally cries on his mother’s shoulder after doing his best to hold her at arm’s length. Both are amazing scenes and both will have you more than a little misty.

It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to label this a “feel-good movie about cancer” but that’s about as close a description as I can get to it. Some people might be turned off about a cancer movie, thinking it too grim and emotionally wrenching but let me assure you, this is as far from grim as you can get. It’s a celebration of life and survival and in these times, we can all use a little bit of that.

REASONS TO GO: An unblinking, often poignant and irreverently funny look at dealing with cancer. Gordon-Levitt and Rogen give terrific performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of foul language, some sexuality and the usage of “medicinal” marijuana.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Adam mentions that among the things he’s never done is visit Canada was filmed…in Canada.

HOME OR THEATER: This has the intimacy of a movie best seen at home where nobody can see you cry.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Names of Love