Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pop Culture Review: "My Left Foot"

My Left Foot

1989, Directed by Jim Sheridan
Academy Award for Best Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress - Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown
"I've had nothing but Platonic love all my life. You know what I say? Fuck Plato!" -- Christy Brown, "My Left Foot"
My Left Foot movie poster
"My Left Foot" is the first movie I can remember seeing that seemed like an authentic portrait of a person with significant disabilities. It helps that it is a film version of the autobiography of a real person, Christy Brown, who became an acclaimed painter and author. The "left foot" in the title refers to the fact that Brown wrote with his left foot, the only part of his body he could fully control.

The film is about more than Brown's disability. It is about the hardships and endurance of working class families in mid-century Ireland. It is also about artistic talent, which can appear where you least expect it.

The most compelling scenes of the first half of the film establish the bonds between Christy and his brothers and sisters. They clearly see him as more than a pet, never as a nuisance, and while he has a unique status of sorts among a large crowd of children, Christy's older siblings especially deal with him as an equal. As for Christy, one of the best scenes of the whole film involves him weighing in against his Father on behalf of his sister … in a matter that isn't directly about him at all. In fact, Christy's most dynamic moments come in key scenes in which he physically or emotionally sticks up for his Mother, Sister, and Father. That is rare in movies about disability, which usually imply that people with disabilities think and act only in regard to themselves. 

Christy in this movie is often mischievous, manipulative, and antisocial, but we are never led to believe that this is solely because of his disability. His family heritage, wild talent, sense of humor, and alcoholism make up large parts of Christy's character, and would have done had he never had a disability. The main disadvantage of his Cerebral Palsy ... aside from the obvious practical difficulties with speech and mobility ... seems to be his difficulty and delay in experiencing love, and this is as much due to others not knowing how to respond to him as it is his own issues.

A key part of his later story shows us two very different women who are both caregivers and potential lovers in Christy's view. One is oblivious until too late, and makes for some truly cringe-inducing moments. The other seems onto him from the start, and this serves her better, as well as Christy. I found it interesting that the more educated woman, an expert in the treatment of Cerebral Palsy, was far more clumsy than than the part-time nurse who had never even met Christy before. Training and familiarity don't always mean understanding where disabilities are concerned.

I look for four things in a film about disability:

- Believability.
- A fully developed character, not a one-dimensional cardboard cutout.
- Disability explains some, but not all of what the character does.
- As few cliches or stereotypes as possible.

There are no real miracles in "My Left Foot", and both the actors' performances and the sets make it quite believable. Christy Brown is shown to be a complex, highly intelligent, flawed and passionate person, neither an object of pity nor a saint. Disability is an important part, but only a part of Christy's life. And the only real cliches or stereotypes are some rather heavy-handed messaging about Irish peoples' supposed love of boozing and brawling.

Best of all, "My Left Foot" is funny, real, and never syrupy.

Note: If you want to read a professional critic's review of "My Left Foot", take a look at Roger Ebert's. It's great to see how perceptive he was about disability, decades before he experienced it himself.

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