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Playing A Special Needs Character: Roles Nobody Can Afford To Phone In

Kate Kostal Kate Kostal
November 18th, 2008 12:08pm EST
The RingerPortraying people with special needs hasn't always been done in an entirely politically correct manner in Hollywood. The further back in history one looks, the more likely a film's content contains something now considered offensive.

Yet in recent forays down that complicated road, many actors have not only stepped up to the plate, they've hit home runs in roles that challenge a society's perspective on many facets of the relationships and abilities of those who simply happen to be the way they are. Each time a movie comes out with a special needs character with a dramatic or serious tone, society holds its breath and watches as the narrative navigates the minefield of taste, political correctness, and blatant attempts to force the viewer to witness the truths and stereotypes involved.

Here are a few of the stories that touchingly portray a few relationships between people with special needs and those in their lives.


Gist: A wealthy family's mentally challenged daughter (Carla Tate played with honesty and heart by Juliette Lewis) returns home from training school to the awkward excitement of her well-meaning mother (Elizabeth Tate played with neurotic perfection by Diane Keaton). Carla pursues independence with community college classes and an unexpected love interest - who is also mentally challenged (Daniel McMann played convincingly with an unapologetic naïveté by Giovanni Ribisi). Throw in two other sisters - one gay and the other planning her wedding - and the side stories fill in quite nicely.

The main struggles are between the lovers but also between the overprotective mother and her daughter. The effect each has on Carla is painful to watch as frustration mounts and explodes in various scenes with heart-wrenching consequences. It's incredibly relatable because it's a story about struggling to break away from somebody who holds too tightly. The need to stand on one's own two feet and be able to show someone who helped along the way that everything worked out just fine. Dependence is over. It just so happens that Carla is also fighting a battle against her mother to be with the man she loves. The mother's concern is absolutely understandable, which makes this conflict tear at the heart much more than in other similar stories.

Favorite part about the movie that might offend others: The tagline - "A love story for the romantically challenged."





Gist: The early nitty-gritty details are glossed over in a film done BEAUTIFULLY. This movie will make tears flow unless it is being viewed by robots. A mentally challenged man (Sam Dawson played with incredible attention to detail, diction, mannerisms, etc. by Sean Penn) impregnates a homeless woman that stayed with him for a short time only to be abandoned by her outside the hospital after the birth of his perfectly healthy and mentally normal daughter (Lucy played by Dakota Fanning). A misunderstanding Lucy overtaking her father in intelligence leads to a custody battle for Lucy between Sam and the authorities with a lawyer taking his case pro bono (100-mph elitist Rita Williams played by Michelle Pfeiffer) that extends to the end of the film.

The content of this drama needed to be created carefully. With an attention to detail that many films lack plus believable characters and a camera style that compliments the soulful soundtrack, "I Am Sam" may be the best tear-jerker the audience never expected. Sam's obsession with Beatles permeates each part of this film. His unconditional love for his daughter is seemingly all he has in this David and Goliath battle for her. Lucy's just as adamant about remaining with her dad, but every other person - including Sam's lawyer Rita - cannot grasp this uncomplicated fact until the latter parts of the film. Throughout their relationship, Sam pushes Rita gently to be a better mother, kinder lawyer, and slower eater. Rita always gives everything she has to her job and what's left gets doled out in small amounts to her son, husband, and herself. Throughout the handheld, intimately tight camera shots the audience sees the evolution of each character into a better person (Rita) or a more pure character of whom there's even less that can be assumed (Sam).

The one thing this movie has that others don't is a like-minded set of friends for the main character. Sam meets for "video night" and meals at IHOP with his buddies, and they offer a view of multiple mental disabilities. Nice touch.

Favorite part of the movie that might offend others: None. Watching this movie with a critical eye turned up nothing that could be seen as demeaning or offensive - a wonderful performance when it really matters.





Gist: Small town, small minds, and a morbidly obese widowed mother plague the insecure eldest son (Gilbert Grape played by Johnny Depp) of a family that struggles to get by in a working class town. With two sisters and a younger brother who is mentally disabled (Arnie played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the story looks in on their life and the seemingly hum-drum existence Gilbert leads. When a love interest enters (Becky played by Juliette Lewis) Gilbert begins to push for more of a life and more privacy from his responsibilities to Arnie and his family. The movie is a gem, very enjoyable, but the reason it's worth mention is DiCaprio's performance.

DiCaprio's star was still rising when he performed beyond himself in this role. His efforts earned him an Academy Award Nomination that went to Tommy Lee Jones for "The Fugitive." This was 1993 - the year of "Philadelphia," "Schindler's List," "The Piano," and seemingly little else at those awards. Having observed DiCaprio's ability to play the leading man in a love story, action film, and drama, as part of an ensemble cast, and his incredible ability to stay picky with his choices it's not surprising he was so good so young. But in 1993 he was 20 and had to prove himself. Here he delivered the first of many memorable performances, tackling the type of role one absolutely cannot phone in.

Favorite part of the movie that might offend others: SPOILER Arnie trying to wake his mother up during his birthday party. This scene is gold - the brick type that is thrown directly at the soul without mercy or warning.






Gist: A movie that disappointed many who hoped for "South Park" or "Jackass" style comedy without thought for others' at all.

"The Ringer" is not a well crafted film. Johnny Knoxville plays the main character. Expectations for this were low. But it could've been so terrible. Nobody was going to waste money seeing it in the theaters, but let's say one night it happens to get rented on a whim months later. The movie is surprising. Yes, there are the in-your-face insults and offensive slurs, but somehow Johnny Knoxville didn't piss off that part of the audience that always looks around to see who in the vicinity is offended. The jokes are mostly directed at Knoxville's character Steve. The movie used special needs actors as well without treating them like they were made out of glass. Throughout the film, they full-on OWN Knoxville in his attempt to come off as mentally disabled in order to win the Special Olympics. It's surprising how un-offensive the movie was considering "Jackass." Sure, some may still think of it as an absolute waste of money, but it could have been abhorrent in comparison.

Favorite part of the movie that may offend others: Winston. Ice cream. Discussion of when they obtained the ice cream. Hilarious.




Kate Kostal
Story by Kate Kostal

Starpulse contributing writer


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