In what is a different role for me, I accepted the opportunity to review “The Grown-Ups”, a film about adults with Down syndrome who have attended the same school together for decades. I wasn’t sure what to expect by this movie, which is described as:
...a warm portrait of a group of middle-aged adults with Down syndrome who have attended the same school for 40 years, and now long for a more independent future.
I sat down to watch the movie, and was immediately drawn in by the warm, dynamic portrayal of the film’s subjects. This documentary captures the depth and breadth of the individuals highlighted, drawing me into their lives. Anita, Rita, Ricardo and Andrés are the main subjects, and each of them has hopes, dreams and complexities which this documentary follows as they unfold. I quickly found myself wrapped up in the story line, which focuses primarily on Anita, a savvy, well-rounded woman who longs for more than the same school she has attended with the same people for forty years.
My first thought was that this was like a documentary version of the movie Groundhog Day in which the subjects wind up enduring the same day over and over again by some crazy twist of time. It would be entertaining, except that these are real people, segregated from society, and stuck in a rut from which they yearn to break free. Forces beyond their control; family, laws, and low income; stymie their efforts for independence. This juxtaposes with the “Conscious Adult Class” in which the subjects are encouraged to reach for their dreams and live full, responsible, autonomous lives; a message that is carried over by the school which keeps them isolated and impoverished. The tragic irony plays out in the lives of these individuals who have been stripped of self-determination and personal freedom. Early in the film I was cheering; eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of dreams and desires for marriage, home ownership and independence for Ricardo, Anita and Andrés, and kept hoping for some fairy tale ending in which they achieve their desires. The film also includes Rita, who is described by Anita as being like a 6-year-old, and has much different desires than the other people who are highlighted. I appreciated her inclusion, because there is a vast spectrum of capability amongst adults with Down syndrome, and it is obvious that Rita does require the structure and support that smothers the other three.
In short, The Grown-Ups masterfully captures the dynamic lives of the people with Down syndrome that it highlights. By showcasing the complex humanity of the subjects, we gain perspective about how crucial self-determination and individual freedoms are, in a lesson that is caught rather than taught. This film has important implications for people with Down syndrome, and those who love them, all over the world. The powerful message this film conveys in story form is the essential human right of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, which is far too often out of reach for people who have disabilities and cognitive impairments. By showing the personal impact of the denial of human rights to this specific group of people, my hope is that this film will be a catalyst for rethinking both systemic and interpersonal infringement on these rights.
The Grown-Ups is a film created by Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi, and will be airing on PBS on September 4 at 10pm.