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The Journal Gazette

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019 1:00 am

Portrayal of disabilities on film sadly overlooked

Christer Watson

Sometimes I feel inspired by something outside of science. I have been trying not to follow but am still actually following the movie awards season. The highest-profile ones, the Academy Awards, released their nominations a couple weeks ago.

I was struck by how irrelevant most of the Academy nominations were. I have a love/hate relationship with these awards. I have followed them, sometimes quite closely, for decades. They have broken my heart several times.

For example, in 1994 one of my favorite movies of all time, “Hoop Dreams,” was not nominated for anything. It seemed clear to me that the Academy voters didn't consider a documentary about high school African-American boys to be relevant to them.

I felt the same way this year. The movie they missed is called “The Rider.” It shows the life of a cowboy, Brady, in South Dakota struggling with a brain injury after a rodeo accident. I think this movie is better than any artwork I have seen at conveying the experience and feelings associated with disability. Since my son has Down syndrome, the issue is quite personal.

I find most artwork that involves people with disabilities to be pretty poor. Typically, the concentration is on those people surrounding a person with disabilities. In a happy movie, the people are inspired. In a sad one, the people have pity.

Regardless, the actual experience and perspective of the person with a disability is pushed to the side. This year, the movie “Green Book” took a similar approach in a different context: Racism in the American South. The movie concentrated on the white character's growth and, as a result, shrank the African-American character's story to the point of being unrecognizable.

“The Rider” is more complicated. Brady's sister appears to be on the autistic spectrum. She speaks semi-randomly. The way she reacts to her brother, however, really builds. Initially you think the family is not responding to her, but you eventually recognize they are, but in a way appropriate for her.

Brady also clearly cares for her in ways that are hard to verbalize. Their interaction is more recognizable as brother and sister than any other movie relationship I saw this year. Needless to say, neither were nominated for acting awards.

A close friend of the cowboy, Lane, also had a rodeo accident. He is severely disabled and requires hospitalization. Brady visits Lane a couple times during the movie. The scenes between them are truly amazing. Early in the first such scene, I didn't pay much attention to Lane. He doesn't speak, doesn't move much and can only use sign language with difficulty. The actor doesn't have many of the typical tools for conveying thoughts and emotions.

Then Brady plays a game with Lane. They hold hands and pretend to ride a horse. They practice steering. The look on Lane's face tells me more about their friendship than I have seen in whole movies.

They have done this before. They do it partially for the memory, but also because they honestly enjoy the actions. It is easy to imagine their friendship outside of this specific scene. For accomplishing that, the friend would win my best supporting actor award for the year.

The friend was also not recognized by the Academy Awards.

Many of the characters in “The Rider” are played by people acting roles very similar to their own lives. The character Brady is played by actor Brady Jandreau. His sister, father and friend are played by his actual sister, father and friend.

Some think this barely counts as acting. I disagree. Given a role similar to my life, I probably couldn't do it on screen. Also, many actors, such as Johnny Depp and Jack Nicholson, seem to play the same character repeatedly, making me suspicious that there is little distinction between the actor and character. The important issue is whether or not the actors convey a human experience.

In the end, the Academy nominations were concentrated among 10 or so movies that were produced in Hollywood and had widely recognized actors. What they didn't have were the actual best acting of the year. To find that requires being open to the idea that a movie out of South Dakota had more access to artistic expression than anything from Hollywood.

Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this column for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.