Monday, June 2, 2014

The AV Club Looks At Intellectual Disability Portrayals

Josh Modell, The AV Club - June 2, 2014

Here’s another welcomed, decent exploration of a disability issue by a “mainstream” publication.

The default position of most pop culture consumers seems to be that movie and TV portrayals of people with intellectual disabilities are by definition profound and heartwarming. There’s a sense that as long as intellectual disability stories aren’t obviously mean-spirited, we sort of have to love them. To quibble or critique is to come off as heartless and insulting. So, this article starts out with a lot of credit simply by acknowledging that such portrayals can actually be both well-intentioned and “awful”.

Writer Josh Modell rightly faults the apparently cynical trend among aspiring actors to take on intellectual disability roles in hopes of scoring acting awards, as if playing intellectually disabled people can’t help but reveal true acting brilliance. In fact, it tends to come off more as stunt acting … a set of formulaic tricks that display actors' knowledge of the tricks, rather than their depth of acting talent. I think that the key to portraying people with disabilities is the same as portraying anyone else … character depth and development. In a few examples, Modell also points to how frequently details are simply unrealistic, like Sean Penn’s “Sam” in “I Am Sam”, who in real life would have at least a few difficulties raising a little girl, but in the movie all of those troubles are depicted as nitpicks from mean bureaucrats. In fact, I think Modell kind of misses the boat on how often intellectual disability film plots rely on straw-man opposition that feels familiar, but is almost never as evil and unwarranted in real life.

The most interesting thing in this article, though, is that Modell seems to be engaged in a kind of dog-chasing-his-tail exercise about the difference between insulting stereotypes and realistic portrayals. An intellectually disabled character talking loud and having “specific obsessions” can certainly be overdone. On the other hand, intellectually disabled people often do both of these things, and sometimes it’s the first thing you notice about them. When it is overdone and that’s all there is to the portrayal, it is insulting. But if they are surface traits that lead to deeper understanding later on, then they aren’t necessarily offensive … unless we think those behaviors themselves are totally unacceptable, which would in itself be insulting and ableist. I think this sends Modell off the rails a bit regarding “The Other Sister”. True, most critics and discerning viewers hate this film for supposedly being over-the-top, but Juliet Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi’s scenery-chewing didn’t bother me that much precisely because their behavior and demeanor felt real to me, and not one-dimensional. Some people are, in fact, uninhibited and extroverted, and there are very real, important stakes involved here that fully justify the characters’ outsized emotions.

I wish the article explored this dilemma a bit more, though there are hints to a solution. Modell notes at least one occasion when intellectually disabled supporting characters were portrayed by intellectually disabled actors … much more effectively than the supposed star.

There are several of these movies I haven’t seen, and am very curious about now, especially “Tim” (Mel Gibson) and “Profoundly Normal” (Kirstie Alley). What I would really love to see is a followup article identifying some “good” intellectual disability portrayals. By leaving out “Forrest Gump” and “Rain Man”, does Modell mean to imply that he likes them … that they aren’t overdone or insulting? They’re not terrible, but I think a lot of his criticisms could be applied to these films, as well.

Still, quibbles aside, it’s good to see wide-audience pop culture websites take on disability issues. More of this, please!