In dramatic terms, we are conditioned to feel sympathy for people who have long term disabilities. It’s an old screenwriting trick; if you have a character that is otherwise unlikable, strike them with a physical or mental illness and suddenly they become three dimensional.
The best example of this is Dr. Gregory House. Hugh Laurie’s otherwise unrepentant drug-addled jerk is saddled with a bum leg that causes constant pain. But David Shore’s show is a little smarter than the average one-hour network TV drama: House is fully aware he’s capable of getting away with more because people still pity him, and he Shore uses that as a springboard to explore some thematically rich ideas that normal television wouldn’t dare touch.
Typically, we watch shows and movies about those with disabilities because we’re suckers for stories about people overcoming adversity. It may be old hat, but it’s nice to feel inspired. Here are seven of the most inspirational movies about disabilities:
1. The Sessions
This might be one of the more controversial movies about disabilities on the list, but one that forces us to question why it makes us uncomfortable. A man with an iron lung, toward the end of his life, hires a sex therapist to experience the loss of his virginity. It confronts audiences with many a question of morality, particularly through the man’s priest (William H. Macy), who is oddly supportive of the endevour. But the performances from John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and Macy ground it in a painful, often beautiful, reality.
2. The Theory of Everything
Biopics follow a fairly standard formula, and this film, about Stephen Hawking as he grapples with the love of his life, mathematics and his degenerative condition, is no exception. It may not be one of the best movies about disabilities, with a fill-in-the-blank script of big moments and cliches, but Eddie Redmayne’s take on Hawking is well worth the watch.
3. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s strangest film begins as a straight forward rags-to-riches sports drama, only to suddenly pull the rug out from audiences and force them to wrestle with some very serious questions about the compassion of euthenasia. It may feel a bit manipulative at times, as many of Eastwood’s later work is bluntly political, but it’s a conversation worth having.
4. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
After the untimely death of his father, young Gilbert (Johnny Depp) is thrust into a figurehead position in a family of five, his obese mother being no help whatsoever. For teenagers, Depp’s heartfelt, anguished performance was a major turn in his career, but even more significant was Leonardo Di Caprio’s role as the intellectually challenged Arnie, who Depp struggles to both identify with and care for.
5. The Fundamentals of Caring
One of my favourite movies about disabilities, it stars Paul Rudd as a recent divorcee hired to care for a severely disabled teen whose single mother must work to keep alive. What’s particularly charming about this true story, beyond Rudd’s always likable persona, is the fact that it doesn’t turn the teen into a burdensome figure to be dealt with.
In fact, he’s kind of a jerk, often faking attacks to freak people out and regularly insulting Rudd as they journey to see the United States’ most trivial attractions. And he finds his match in Rudd, who doesn’t turn his charge into an object of pity, but instead takes as good as he gets. Both funny and sweet, and definitely a showcase for Rudd, who continues to impress as a dramatic and comedic talent.
6. The Elephant Man
Reportedly, when the studio sent director David Lynch notes about this tragic tale of the significantly deformed John Merrick, producer Mel Brooks wrote them the following memo: “We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you, to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives.”
Brooks was such an ardent fan of Lynch’s dreamlike work, he fully believed he was the man to realize this story. So much so, in fact, that he had his name removed from the credits to ensure no one thought it was a comedy. It most certainly isn’t. Merrick begins his journey as a circus freak before he is discovered by scientist Anthony Hopkins, who wishes to study him. But it turns out the circus attraction freak show isn’t a far cry from standing in an auditorium full of doctors. The audience may be different, the purpose is oddly the same. It is a stunning indictment of how we treat the disabled.
7. Born on the Fourth of July
Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone has never really stopped fighting the horrors of that war in his films, and he confronts the realities of a returning vet – spited by the public by being a tool of a cynical government and legless due to his participation – in a painfully tragic way. Tom Cruise gives what may be the best performance of his career as real life vet Ron Kovic.