What We Can Learn From the Short Film, "Learning to Drive"

Alfred Hitchcock preached that good storytelling includes plenty of inside information. In the short film “Learning to Drive” there are two brothers on a road trip, in a Jeep called Bruce, which backfires often and is a gas guzzler. There is a prison nearby. One brother, called Red, is what is known in technical circles as a hot mess. Michael is the other brother. He has Down syndrome, is determined to deliver his mother’s ashes to the Grand Canyon, and although he has a strong desire to learn, doesn’t have a license to drive.

What could go wrong?

Good storytelling also brings questions. For example, what happens to a person with a disability after his parent’s die? Why would a person with Down syndrome want a driver’s license? Don’t people with Ds just go with the flow?

Who is Constance Botham?

“Who’s Constance Botham?” asks the State Patrol officer early in the film.

“That’s our mother,” Michael replies. “She passed away from cancer and left Bruce for me.” (Bruce, as you may recall, is the Jeep.) Red squirms in the hot seat, having been pulled over for driving erratically, may have been drinking, and has evidenced to the audience a few other recent risky decisions.

Intrigued? How about a short movie trailer to cinch the deal:

The lead actors in this film are Kevin Coubal and Connor Long. I was introduced to the work of Connor Long a few years back via the film “Menschen” and wrote an entire series of articles following my viewing of it. The best after-effect was it led to my actual meeting of Connor our families became quick friends.

So, with “Learning to Drive,” I’ve been privy to some of the early details, like the freezing cold desert night filming, the struggles for funding, the delays, and the wins. The biggest perk, however, is that I’ve seen the short although the premier isn’t out for a few more weeks. October 9 in Tucson, Arizona, as a matter of fact. (Info here.)

“Learning to Drive” is an example of the powerful way fiction stories can be a tool in opening minds and starting discussions.

Have you ever seen a movie that gets your own real life?

We artists, well writers especially I suppose, have bizarre Google searches. Writers go to worlds they’ve never been, have characters they’ve never met, create worlds within worlds. Also, we use what we do know, have felt, have seen, and we throw it into the mix. Roderick Stevens created a fictional road trip and fictional mystery with fictional conflict based on the real-life knowledge and placed it in a what if…

Did I tell you the writer and director, Roderick Stevens has a brother with Down syndrome? The portrayal of the character with Ds in this movie incorporates typical behaviors or characteristics without being stereotypical. It’s the difference between someone who gets it as opposed to someone who’s Googled it.

Here are two examples. Many people I know with Ds talk through situations, self-talk, it’s called. As a script writer, that’s got to be a godsend. A quick and easy way for exposition and characterization without the narrator. We see a little of this with Michael. Another common attribute of people I know with Down syndrome, that is not a godsend for a director, is the habit of keeping their feelings and struggles guarded. You’ve heard the term hard shelled? People who are outwardly cold but once you get to know them they’re sensitive and deep feeling? People with Ds often get the opposite rap. They show a pleasant, eager-to-please side when they are in public, but beneath that façade, churning many memories and emotions. Most people I know with Down syndrome are close guards of their emotions and the undercurrents of sadness, anger, and the trauma boil underneath. Then, like the hard shelled person, when pushed to a breaking point, may cry out, “Listen to me!”

Connor Long is not Michael, but he pulled from himself Michael’s character. In fact, he has already been recognized for his acting skills in this film by the Southern Shorts Awards. Both Long and Stevens wanted to tell a story where Michael is a viable, relatable character. How can this be done for the majority of the world who don’t have or maybe even know someone with Down syndrome?

Here’s where characterization, hero’s arc, and real-life collide.

Writers rule: don’t just do to the character. A character must make decisions, good and bad decisions, for we – the reader/audience - to appreciate, identify, and grow with him.

Uh Oh. How’s that going to work? How to have a character make his own decisions, his own life choices, with a person who is not allowed to make decisions?

Oh snap. How can we expect society, everyone we know, everyone we want to know, to connect and feel empathy for a person who is, not allowed to make decisions?

Did you just hear that record scratching my brain?

Don’t get too squirmy in your seat yet, let’s go back to the comfy word world of fiction. Let’s see what Roderick did to solve the story line conundrum. Well, he realized, for the audience to connect and relate he had to get Michael… Alone.

Wait. What? Alone?

This is what we call in the craft, the point of no return. Yes, Friend, I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to tell you our hero goes out… Alone. He does what heroes do. He pursues his own Grail. He uses his talents, his superpowers, he makes mistakes, we…we root for him. We identify with his struggle and his scary moments. He is our character.

And fellow family members, it is scary. It’s worst-case. It’s all the reasons we make up our own minds as to why we don’t allow our children the dignity of risk.

Crap wagon!

What does this the fictional story teach us? What is it advocating?

To the masses: a relatable character with Down syndrome. Truth in ambition, in self-advocacy. The connection of rooting for a hero, more like ourselves then maybe we knew before.

To me as a parent of an adult with Down syndrome: I don’t want to talk about it. Oh, I am talking about it. Fine.

Stevens said of his real-life brother, “I realized that, at that moment, I was the only one stopping him.” So, here we are, another Sunday morning coffee shop writing session, where I sit crying and writing and use more than my share of napkins. All of life as a parent is a little bit pushing, a little bit protecting, and little bit of letting go. If you’re a parent, too, you know which one of these is the hardest.

You know what? Let’s divert and talk more about “the sibling” character a moment: Red. Red is a hot mess. Making him immediately likable and relatable. He’s a man who recently made some questionable decisions. On top of that his mother lost her struggle with cancer. His younger brother, an adult with Down syndrome is now his “responsibility.” What’s a guy to do but panic? Of course. Who wouldn’t?

Used with permission, check out the Learning to Drive Youtube Channel
Used with permission, check out the Learning to Drive Youtube Channel

One more piece of the film I loved is the way the soundtrack is used. Especially the single, “Slip Again” by Wake up Joel. It’s perfect and used perfectly in the film. There are many eloquent lyrics, and the vocals haunting with “ashamed in excess,” but the simplicity of this sentiment:

“Trying to keep my shit...straight.
Trying to find some…thing.”

Aren’t we all?

So back to the heroes’ quest and the story. Often we find that what our hero thinks he wants and what our hero actually needs are not always the same journey, right? When my son, Marcus, and I break down the stories we study, we ask ourselves, what’s the truth? Every good story has a universal truth or two.

The truths in “Learning to Drive”

We are all imperfect, learning beings. There’s a lot of imperfect beauty and a lot of learning, and for those open to it, a lot of teaching, packed in this short film.

So, about Red and his big plan…

Well, I guess it’s time for me to tell you to see the movie yourself. The world premier is in Tucson, AZ on October 9th. For the rest of us, check the website and sign up for the newsletter for updates. Reach out to the creators to bring it to a city near you.

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