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Review: The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

Directed by: Rob Burnett

Premise: Based on the novel by Jonathan Evison. A middle-aged man (Paul Rudd) opts for a career change and becomes the caregiver to a teenager with muscular dystrophy (Craig Roberts). The two of them take a road trip to “the world’s deepest pit.”

What Works: The Fundamentals of Caring centers upon the relationship between a disabled teenager and his caregiver. Their relationship is somewhere between friendship and mentorship with the older man relating to his charge in a casual way while also guiding him through new life experiences. When dramatic motion pictures tell stories about disabled characters and especially stories about the relationship between abled and disabled people, there is a tendency to tokenize the incapacitated character. Quite frequently, the disabled character is made into a saint or a martyr or functions as a mechanism for the redemption of an able-bodied person. That’s mostly avoided in The Fundamentals of Caring. Although there is a redemption theme running throughout the movie, it is played softly. At one point the caregiver explicitly states that he’s not going to use this young man in that way and it’s a self-reflexive moment that clarifies the film’s intentions. Another bad habit of movies like this is the tendency to become melodramatic. The filmmakers of The Fundamentals of Caring go the other way and one of the most impressive aspects of the film is how unsentimental it is. The Fundamentals of Caring has a bawdy sense of humor. The teenager, played by Craig Roberts, is introduced as an angry and foul-mouthed young man who frequently says mean, vulgar, and sexist things to everyone within earshot. It’s a surprise because the character is so opposite of the way we usually encounter disabled characters in motion pictures but it also plays strategically by the filmmakers. By allowing for this mean spirited humor in the first half of the story, the filmmakers take the pretension out of the film and allow for dramatic moments later on. But those sequences are also played with restraint; in the course of their trip the characters encounter disappointments and revelations and it’s never overplayed. This is a good example of a “less is more” approach to drama and the disappointment and heartache play sincerely because they are understated. The film benefits from its two lead actors. The caregiver is exactly the kind of role that Paul Rudd does well and he’s well paired with Craig Roberts who is difficult and mean without turning off the audience.  

What Doesn’t: The Fundamentals of Caring is a road trip movie and the narrative chugs along predictably. The characters are likable but there is something rather generic about their situations. Everyone is exactly who they initially appear to be and there isn’t any ambiguity to anyone. The film suffers from a light sexist streak. Much of this is found in Craig Roberts’ character; he’s a teenage boy who has no social interaction and his sexism is an expression of his isolation and sexual frustration. His sexism dissipates when Roberts’ character finally meets and interacts with a woman his own age but it’s never commented upon further. Therein lies another problem: the casting of Selena Gomez. She plays a runaway who is hitching her way across the country and Gomez is wrong for the part. As a popstar turned actress, Gomez is too glamourous and polished for this role. She doesn’t have the grit or the world-weariness that’s called for. While on the road, the travelers pick up a pregnant woman (Megan Ferguson) whose car has broken down. She’s inserted into the story for contrived reasons; she allows the filmmakers to concoct a last minute crisis that creates an opportunity for heroism but the storytelling mechanics show through and diminish the dramatic impact.

DVD extras: The Fundamentals of Caring is currently available only on Netflix.

Bottom Line: The Fundamentals of Caring is a solid mix of comedy and drama that largely succeeds due to its witty script and its central performances by Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts. The film is mostly predictable but it is also likable and achieves a few poignant moments.

Episode: #648 (May 21, 2017)