While working on the sequel to Every Time I Think of You, I decided to specifically watch movies that prominently feature characters who are wheelchair users or are disabled. I wanted to see how depictions are either accurate or, more often, preposterous or melodramatic. Here's a list:
Abominable (2006): Rear Window meets Sasquatch. Preston Rogers (Matt McCoy) is forced by his doctor, apparently, and his slightly abusive caregiver to return to his remote cabin in the mountains, after a paralyzing rock-climbing accident that killed his wife. Along with the amusing low-grade horror devices, a number of improbabilities plague this low-budget thriller. What doctor would recommend making a man return to his completely inaccessible home, with two flights of stairs? Rogers is portrayed as a trapped victim forced to become a hero and save the dwindling cast of female nearby cabin-renters.
A few amusing B-horror actor cameos, plus a lot of gore, don't excuse the completely implausible story that the notoriously reclusive (albeit fictional) Bigfoot would go on a murderous rampage. At least Rogers does eventually become a hero. (See interview with the writer-director.)
Planta 4 (2003; also called 4th Floor, and Entre Amigos, not to be confused with the cheesy American thriller The 4th Floor): About a group of rambunctious kids dealing with cancer, and its resultant leg amputations, the film is set entirely in a Spanish hospital, where the adorable clan get into various mishaps and misadventures. There's a bit of tragedy, but more, an overriding sense of goodhearted spirit to Antonio Mercero's film, which is based on the experiences of screenwriter Albert Espinosa's stage play, called 'The Baldies' (the actors' shaved heads, while representing their recovery from chemotherapy, only make them cuter, especially Juan Jose Ballesta).
The boys' ambitions to win at least one wheelchair basketball game are raised when a new patient arrives who, after a bit of sulking, admired the Baldies, but never truly becomes one of them. Also of note is the depiction of the hospital staff, from complacent, to bullying authoritarians, to sympathetic conspirators in their late-night hijinks. Here's a translated page of a Spanish scholarly paper about the film.
It's especially nice to see the diverse casting that includes a few actors who actually are amputees, and the immersive setting that includes a pretty wild wheelchair race.
Dreamrider (1993): Based on a true story, Bruce Jennings spends time at a convalescent home after a police car runs him over, and, as a single amputee, he gets hit by another car while riding a bike while using his new prosthetic leg. James Earl Jones (who could give even a doughnut commercial gravitas) plays a paraplegic artist who inspires Jennings to make a cross-country bicycle trek, with his little dog, too!
It's great that actual amputee Matthew Geriak (a handsome former downhill skier and para-athlete who lost a leg from cancer) is cast in the lead. He has a dopey kind of charm, and a studly muscular frame that gets a few beefcake shots during his training montages. But for some reason his every line is looped (studio-dubbed).
The TV movie, with a lot of cliché lines and heavy-handed religious content (including a creepy priest with a fake Irish accent), builds a familiar tale of the self-pitying patient/victim who overcompensates by becoming a "super-crip" despite everyone else in his life, except Jones, telling him what he can't do. Yet, others, including a budding lady love interest, learn to accept his ambitious goal, and a lot of scenic cycling footage later, he does! And who does he receive a congratulatory proclamation from at the finale, but California's own Rep. William Dannemeyer, one of politic's most virulently homophobic rightwing Rethuglicans, a deranged crackpot who believed that AIDS is airborne, and who voted down state funding for the disabled.
The Brooke Ellison Story (2004): Here's another true-life story that somehow manages to blend melodrama and inspiration in the Lifetime: Television for Women category. Ellison's journey as a quadraplegic who endures an accident and achieves her goal to go to an Ivy League college includes the "us against the system" story line. As Ellison's mother, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio fights the medical establishment's negative obstructions, learning to care for her daughter as her husband (John Slattery) battles its bureaucracy.
The late Christopher Reeve directed this sometimes stilted yet inspirational TV movie, which was an achievement in itself, and proof that a former actor can take a personal issue and provide an uplifting message, despite the problems of a script that veers toward a weep-fest.
Mac and Me (1988): Justifiably considered one of the worst films of all time, this blatant ET rip-off features a bug-eyed family of aliens who land on earth after being sucked into a space-exploring drone capsule. From the utterly 80s dance number set in a McDonald's (complete with frizzy-haired girls, gay football players and lots of leg-warmers) to the contrived plot, this stinker deserves a stultifying view. It's like a car crash. You just can't turn away. In fact, the multiple horrific car crashes in the film, played for laughs (or something) combined with the crassest product placement ever, pale in comparison to horrific scenes of real-life wheelchair-using child actor Jade Calegory ending up falling off cliffs and zooming down highways in his chair.
The only redeeming value of this film is that a real-life disabled kid (with spina bifida in real life; un-explained in the film) does an admirable job, and his disability is incidental. That is, except for the ridiculous cliff-diving shot, which has become a running gag on the Conan O'Brien Show.
The Highwaymen (2004): this reprehensible terror flick stars Jim Caviezel as a revenge-driven loner whose wife was brutally run over by a Cadillac-driving man, who loves to kill women with his car. Caviezel hunts him down, paralyzes him in a flashback car chase, and his "victim's" hideous cross-country rampage continues. In addition to the "cripple as villain" cliche, it's vehicularly violent (10, 12 car chases?), and hideous in every way.
The Haunted Airman (2006): Pre-Twilight, Robert Pattinson starred in this torpid WWII gothic one-hour film that portrays a paralyzed bomber pilot as a neurotic victim with hallucinations of spiders. Trapped in an English mansion-turned convalescent home for soldiers (with lots of stairs!), he's manipulated by a doctor and betrayed by his sorta-incestuous lover gal. While the mental problems and callous treatment of WWII vets may have been similar, this is a stylish overwrought mess.
The Goal (2006) - Imagine a dramatic version of the documentary Murderball.
Well, this isn't it.
"The Goal" tells of a cycling athlete paralyzed in a mountain-biking spill. Through the hospital ordeal, prayers pour out like musical numbers. An interesting element is the father of the injured guy is also a (partial) wheelchair user. In fact, the majority of characters are as well, eventually.
But the film's intentions fall flat, except for the actual sports scenes. The absurd buildups of prayer getting 1. son interested in quad rugby, when he already wanted to do it, 2. He gets a new van! 3. The hospital bills are all paid! 4. He gets to carry the Olympic torch! Praise be!
Other scenes are remarkable in their clarity of showing all sorts of accessible transport, from a van with a hydraulic driver's seat to one character skiing. The problem is these scenes are shot like equipment trade show trailers.
This is something for the Ned Flanders in your life. As one Netflix viewer calls "the jesus and god stuff," it's unfortunate that this declaratively Christian saga, approved by the Dove Council for purity, just doesn't work.
With production values (flat lighting, stilted sets, cheesy music) that resemble softcore erotica, and the lead male actors are cute enough for it, the holy message is more than forced. There are wonderful authentic moments slipped in between the archness, particularly the camping trips with our hero's pal, played by Jason Coviello, whose every scene is a naturalistic relief, despite his not being disabled.
Unfortunately, even the blog Christian Book Previews called it "the worst of what Christian cinema can be."
More unfortunately, the film's official website was taken over by a Japanese ringtone company.
But here are some pics of the hunks:
Miracle in Lane 2 (2000): Frankie Muniz stars in a very loose adaptation of the quest of young Justin Yoder, who was the first disabled competitor in national Soap Box Derby competitions. His success and breakthrough led to a special hand brake being allowed, and named after him.
This Disney film is understandably Disney-esque, with amusing dream sequences where Justin sees God as race driver Bobby Wade (played by hunky Tuc Watkins who sports some hot sideburns; you may recall him as a gay husband in Desperate Housewives, and on soap operas where he was fortunately, frequently shirtless, wearing only a towel or just a bathing suit!).
Rounding off the hunk factor is Rick Rossovich as Justin's dad (oh my) and Patrick Levis as his jock brother, whose own conflicts with Justin are well-dramatized.
What's unusual about this TV movie is that while the real-life Yoders are Mennonites, the film eliminates that aspect, leaving the faith perspective to scenes of Justin's talks with God/Wade. The Hollywoodification is a bit glaring, and the real life version would have interested me more (but probably not Disney Channel viewers). It's an odd combination, but it covers the boy's spina bifida medical concerns in a way that kids can understand and adults can appreciate with too many corny lines.
Here's an article about the representation of disabled kids on TV.
The Seeker (2007) Another quest film is an actual documentary that follows a motorcycle quad trek east across America. It's about a large man with big dreams, and despite the often cheesy video effects that give it an endearing aspect, his friends in the film speak honestly about all sorts of issues.
Zooming along in a specially-made motorcycle and wheelchair attachment, Evan Somers meets other people along his road, from a flirty waitress to a guy who designed a motor bike with a rack for his wheelchair. He's no model, in fact, he's a schlump. But he has heart.
I don't know, but I found something more spiritual in this film. Despite its flaws, and our hero's many disappointments, he went for it. There's no slow motion raised fist of victory. It's more about just knowing when you've won.
Good Luck (1996)
The Hollywood-quality road trip bromance Good Luck stars two accomplished actors playing men who overcome their obstacles by competing in a river raft race. Gregory Hines is a paraplegic, and Vincent D'Onofrio, recently blinded by a pro football injury, is dragged from his self-pity phase by nerdy Hines. The multiple improbabilities are countered with frank comic discussions of bodily functions, sex, and life. D'Onofrio's movements are a little overplayed. But the sincerity is embodied in the form of daddy hunk Max Gail as the rural pot farmer.
The combination of stronger plot development than others, the ace acting and the breadth of sardonic humor and corny hope, make this a Good Luck charm.
And while I've been creating this post's list, I learned abut TCM's programming of upcoming classic films with disability themes. The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film, curated by Lawrence Carter-Long, will screen in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Be sure to check out these films, too!
Here's TheWrap.com's slideshow of stills from 20 movies that have non-disabled actors portraying disabled people.