Feel-Good Films About Disabilities Need to Also Make You Feel Bad

Four films this season deal with disabled individuals and the people who care about them—and despite its success, The Sessions is the worst of the pack.

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UGC Distribution / Sony Pictures Classics; Gaumont; Fox Searchlight; Sony Pictures Classics

The hive mind has spoken, and the theme at the art house this Oscar season is disability. This year gives us four acclaimed movies released in the U.S. (though most of them foreign) dealing with love and companionship for people with physical impairments. One of the best arrives in the States this week: Rust and Bone, French director Jacques Audiard's follow-up to his 2009 masterpiece, A Prophet. Once it expands beyond its extremely limited initial release, it will hopefully start poaching viewers from the weakest of the quartet: the growing indie hit The Sessions, which qualifies as a sleeper both in the expanding success of its box-office take, and its lazy, inspiration-by-numbers approach to its subject matter.

Both films feature characters with physical disabilities—polio for Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions, and the sudden loss of her legs in a freak killer-whale accident for Rust and Bone's Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard)—who are taught to reconnect with their physical selves. In both cases, the key components of that rehabilitation are 1) sex and 2) individuals with complicated personal histories that have left them emotionally disconnected. The able-bodied halves of these pairs need help just as much, if not more than, the people with the more-visible limitations. You can easily imagine how those plot arcs have the potential to be as emotionally manipulative as one of those tear-jerking Folgers Coffee "Coming Home" Christmas commercials. It's to these films' credit that they never follow a path nearly that easy.

But while The Sessions isn't a bad movie, despite the over-the-top festival buzz and effusive praise, it left me without the euphoric feeling so many others seemed to get from it. It took Audiard's thornier take on the subject matter to help me understand why: to truly pull off a feel-good story about disability, it helps a lot if a film can make you feel bad at some point.

It's instructive to first look at the other two films of this quartet, which offer an even clearer dichotomy: the international box-office juggernaut of The Intouchables, and Amour, Michael Haneke's second consecutive film to win the Palme D'Or at Cannes. The former is a relentlessly cheery inspirational dramedy about an African-born ex-con who is hired as a caretaker by a rich Parisian tetraplegic. Haneke's film is a relentlessly bleak story about an elderly Parisian couple, one of whom becomes despondent and suicidal after losing control of half her body following a stroke, and then is rendered a near-invalid when a second stroke leaves her bed-ridden and barely able to communicate.

The Intouchables shows disability as we fervently hope it would manifest itself should we ever suffer such misfortune. There is no shortage of resources or quirky characters to deal with the difficult circumstances. A little street wisdom, some Earth, Wind, and Fire, and a joint smoked on the banks of the Seine on a crisp Paris night will help you find the brighter side of life, it says. In comparison, Amour is a splash of cold water on the face—or perhaps an icy blade to the throat—reminding us that even the lives of the privileged and cultured often end in desperate near-isolation. It's not difficult to figure out which of these two has grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide and will end the year as the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S., and which has taken in a small fraction of that amount.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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