Disability in film is often portrayed in a mist of gloom. The Intouchables went some way to undo the trope of the tragically disabled in 2011, but box office hit You Before Me (sold as a rom-com right up until that finale visit to Dignitas) reverted straight back to cliché.
It’s refreshing, then, to see a film that thoroughly rejects the idea that a life with disability is an unliveable one. Based on Jonathan Evison’s novel of the same name, The Fundamentals of Caring (directed by Rob Burnett) was snapped up by Netflix after its premiere at Sundance. Considering its big-name stars – Selena Gomez and Paul Rudd are household names, and Craig Roberts is enough to catch a film fan’s eye after his roles in Submarine and Being Human – it’s been rather quietly tucked away amongst Netflix’s new releases.
Netflix has been creating a slew of original content after the initial success of Orange is the New Black; some good (see: Bojack Horseman and Beasts of No Nation) and some bad (see: anything by Adam Sandler). It’s easy for a film to get lost, particularly when it hasn’t had a cinema release – but The Fundamentals of Caring was an unexpectedly charming, decidedly cheery second film by director Rob Burnett.
The film stars Craig Roberts as Trevor, a reclusive paraplegic teen with a dark sense of humour. On meeting the inexperienced, no-nonsense Ben (Paul Rudd), Trevor chooses him to be his carer, and eventually agrees to a surreal road trip to visit the world’s biggest pit. Along the way they pick up Dot, played by Selena Gomez with a surprising level of grace and all-round charm, and Peaches (Megan Ferguson), a heavily pregnant woman just about ready to pop.
Burnett’s decision to place his crew of characters on a road trip is a smart one – it keeps the dynamic fresh and fluid – and the director is clearly aware of the generic expectations that come with a comedy-drama about disability. Burnett, refreshingly, plays these expectations to his advantage, rather than falling into their trap; one of the running jokes of the film is that Trevor is choking on a slim-jim – each time he leaves the gag longer and longer, allowing Ben to panic just a little bit more each time, before he reveals the trick. A lazier filmmaker, perhaps more inclined to tug at the heart strings, might pull the rug out from under the audience and have this act as foreshadowing for Trevor’s death – or at least, a tragic hospitalisation. But Burnett doesn’t give into temptation and it makes his film all the better for it.
Because, at the end of the day, The Fundamentals of Caring has a character who is disabled – but that isn’t the be-all and end-all of his existence. And that means the narrative has freedom to explore other routes. The story hangs on father-son relationships – Trevor’s relationship with his estranged father, Ben’s relationship with his mysteriously-absent son and, of course, the surrogate father-son relationship between the two male leads – and the film balances these relationships nicely. In this balance Burnett has found a human, relatable story that doesn’t ask us the audience to sit in its own pity for the film’s disabled lead for an hour and a half.
The Fundamentals of Caring is, after all, a road trip movie, and so follows a relatively simple narrative – the film is carried by its sharp dialogue and impeccable acting rather than a twisting plot. The audience might expect to Paul Rudd to dominate in this comedy part – but he seems to take a back-seat here, so restrained he’s almost flat. He’s given very little opportunity to play with the role, but rather than feeling restrictive, it’s refreshing; we see a character marred by tragedy, rather than Paul Rudd playing another iteration of Paul Rudd. It also leaves space for Craig Roberts to shine, and he takes on a lead role with a confidence that belies his age. Roberts has been edging his way into mainstream American comedy for a while – he can be seen with a bit-part in Bad Neighbours and cropped up in 22 Jump Street – and has shown that he can lead a film with an excellent turn in Richard Ayaode’s Submarine. But here he slips from tragedy to comedy and back again so seamlessly that I wouldn’t be surprised to see his career follow the same trajectory of British household names like Tom Hiddleston or Andrew Lincoln. It’s exciting to see what a fresh young talent still has up his sleeve, and he’s well-supported by Rudd.
The Fundamentals of Caring is heart-rending without playing for tears, a comedy that retains its drama, is well-structured without becoming over-complicated; overall, it’s well worth paying your Netflix subscription for. Or, at least, borrowing someone else’s password.