Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING now on Netflix
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. —Helen Keller
This is a difficult review for me to write. Scratch that. This is probably one of the hardest reviews for me to write. The film The Fundamentals of Caring (FOC) is about a young man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). The disease is insidious in that is a progressive, muscle-wasting disease that affects approximately one in 3,500 male children. The prognosis is never good. Most children don’t make it out of their teens alive. There is no cure. There is no treatment other than perhaps steroids which only serve to possibly prolong muscle life.
My oldest son, Wyatt, has DMD.
So it is with a heavy heart and a critical eye that I came to this film. Rob Burnett, probably best known in the industry for being the executive producer of the Late Show with David Letterman, wrote and directed the film. It was based on a novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. The film stars Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, and Bobby Cannavale.
Obviously, I have a love/hate relationship with the film and it is one that has been haunting me since I watched it. While somewhat predictable in plot, it is extremely powerful. Of course, thematically it goes well beyond the plight of just DMD sufferers and their caregivers and resonates with anyone facing a serious, debilitating illness. But this film is not only personal to those affected, but to their caregivers as well. Interestingly, caregiving is one of the jobs that novelist Evison lists in his bio.
With respect to DMD, the film is quite accurate. Almost all children affected by the disease are in a wheelchair by their pre-teens. There is a montage of shots showing the plethora of medicines and supplements that kids with the disease often take including deflazacort (a steroid comparable to prednisone given in the UK and Europe). The film also depicts sleeping with a BiPAP machine, a device used by the vast majority of the kids to facilitate breathing and sleeping. The only inaccuracy that I found were in the character Trevor’s ability to move and raise his arms. Generally speaking, DMD sufferers who reach Trevor’s age (twenty) cannot lift their arms. Additionally, his fingers would not be stiff and intractable. Indeed, for some inexplicable reason the disease does not affect small muscles in the eyes and fingers. Finally, if Trevor was on deflazacort, he would be significantly heavier. Even though deflazacort generally is known to have fewer side effects than prednisone, there would still be some weight gain.
But these are knit-picky things and as a director and writer, I am cognizant that complete accuracy to real life with anything, much less the depiction of a deadly disease, is virtually impossible. The film works. That is the most important thing. If for no other reason, it works as a vessel for awareness for DMD. But, I am happy to say, it works on deeper levels as well. It represents a healing journey for all of the characters involved. Caregivers, like the people they care for, often are afflicted with their own demons and maladies. In fact, we all are journeymen and have our crosses to bear and frankly, life isn’t fair. The film is both cathartic and inspirational.
Without giving away too much, the story involves a writer, Ben, who, tortured by his own private demons, ends up taking a job as a caregiver to the snarky, disrespectful Trevor, a twenty-year-old afflicted with DMD. Trevor’s dad left when he was diagnosed at three (a sadly common occurrence in DMD families) leaving his mother to pick up the pieces and carry on. Needless to say Trevor is bitter, sarcastic and, at times, irreverent. Who wouldn’t be in his position? The number one item on his wish list is to pee standing up (yes, it’s the little things in life). And speaking of pee, he manages to pee piss off every caregiver he has. It’s initially a rocky road for Ben, but despite being warned not to, he develops a bond with Trevor. He plans a road trip with Trevor to visit the largest sink hole in the U.S. Along the way they pick up two female travelers: one a hitchhiker and the other a pregnant damsel in distress. Needless to say, the road trip is a metaphor for one’s trip on the roller coaster known as life.
Paul Rudd is an intense, insightful actor in every part he plays, whether it is the reluctant superhero in Ant-Man (see our review) or as the tortured soul in this film. He brings such a mix of vulnerability and strength to the role of Ben. Craig Roberts plays the DMD-afflicted Trevor to perfection. He captures and conveys the bitterness of his plight with the underlying quest for redemption and salvation. Selena Gomez was a wonderful surprise as Dot. She brought her formidable acting chops to the role and proved she has more than just a pretty face and a beautiful singing voice.
Rob Burnett did a great job directing. There are no special effects, green screens, action sequences, etc. Just a story with real people in real situations with real flaws. All in all, it was a beautiful, haunting and engaging film. Please pay it forward.
I hear about a lot of the newest things from my children. My husband and I work A LOT and watching TV for fun just never seems to work into our (especially my) schedule – ever – and on top of it, I’ve played helpless with the TV remotes, so I don’t turn it on unless the kids or the hubs are here to do it for me. That means I don’t often see product commercials or movie previews. So when a new film is coming out, I rarely know about it, except when one of the kids shows me the trailer. And that’s exactly what happened with The Fundamentals of Caring, written and directed by Rob Burnett, based on the novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison. My 16-year-old daughter caught wind of it and couldn’t wait for me to see the trailer; and then she was counting the days until the movie release. In fact, she wanted to watch it the very day it was released on Netflix (I think we caught it the next day).
It was immediately clear from one of the clips she showed me that the film centers on a teenage boy who is diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) – sadly, this is right in our family’s wheelhouse as my stepson who is 18 is living with it. I have to say I was rather shocked, since you just don’t see that disorder highlighted in mainstream media, but thrilled that this rare disease, which is always lethal and is the most common form of the muscular dystrophies, would get national and even international attention in a feature film. What’s more, there is a lot of action happening right now with the FDA with regard to some very promising new treatments, so the timing is great.
For those who are unfamiliar, I’ll first explain what DMD is. It is a fatal, progressive, muscle-wasting disease that is often recognized quite early, when very young children fail to meet typical physical milestones. It affects all voluntary muscles and eventually the heart and the lungs, because the body’s cells don’t produce dystrophin, a necessary muscle protein. It mainly is found in boys (about 1 in 3,500) but girls can be carriers and may, in very rare cases, show some milder symptoms. There are treatments but there is no cure; boys often do not live past their teens, but some may survive into their mid-twenties. Quality of life is dramatically affected and DMD continues to rob its victims of mobility and independence: boys are usually wheelchair-dependent by age 12, require heart medications, steroids (if families choose this route to preserve as much muscle function as is possible) as well as many other supplements, breathing apparatus (a BiPAP at night and later a ventilator), and eventually, if they live long enough, a feeding tube. Joint and spinal complications are nearly a given. Generally, all that these young men are able to move in the latest stages are their fingers, but muscle loss and strength in the hands and arms doesn’t allow the lifting or manipulation of objects, therefore they are completely dependent upon others for all of their daily needs and self-care.
I was interested, even intrigued, but hesitant to see the movie. I knew it would be hard for me, but likely devastating for my husband. Nevertheless, we sat down with a few of our kids to watch it. It didn’t hurt that it starred the uber talented Paul Rudd as the newly-hired caregiver, Ben; the incredible, multi-threat Selena Gomez (my daughter’s “queen”) as Dot, the runaway they meet on a road trip; and the remarkably brilliant Craig Roberts as the ever-snarky, sarcastic, and deeply embittered Trevor, the teen with DMD.
So for the story in a nutshell: After Ben experiences the tragic loss of his only son, he gives up a writing career and spirals into depression. Barely emerging from it, he literally drags himself out of bed to attend caregiver training classes. With a divorce he’s running from and not a shred of inner peace, Ben applies for his first job in this new career – to care for 20-year-old Trevor, who up until that point, hasn’t liked any of the caregivers his single mother Elsa (played by a phenomenal Jennifer Ehle) has interviewed. Somehow, the two marginally connect over a toileting discussion, and Ben is hired.
After a time and much to Mom’s consternation, Ben and Trevor embark on a week-long road trip. Soon after their departure, they encounter Dot, the girl of any red-blooded boy’s fantasy (it had to be Selena!). She is the sharp-tongued, smoking, cursing, often cynical young girl who’s run away from her own personal mess, but is happy to share passage (and Slim Jims) with the motley pair. Trevor, for the first time, begins to allow others in and attempts to experience life as others do, while taking in such mind-blowing roadside attractions as the World’s Deepest Pit and the World’s Largest Bovine.
The film moves through the expected and necessary paces of their early bonding experiences, touching upon sensitive subjects while injecting tremendous doses of humor. In life, as we all know, there’s the good, the bad, and certainly the ugly – Burnett pulls no punches and is unafraid of making us laugh at moments when one might want to cry or even feel repulsed. The story never makes light of or pokes fun at the genuinely heavy subjects, but shows us instead, how we all may find a way to navigate life, regardless of the landmines we must avoid. Ben and Trevor (and Rudd and Roberts) are well matched, and their prickly banter goes back and forth like watching two people play handball with a cactus. Despite the painful moments, however, you’re never mired in them for long because before you know it, you’re laughing until your sides ache.
I have loved Paul Rudd since I developed something of a crush on him in the 1995 film Clueless and when he had me guffawing ten years later in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (also loved him in Ant-Man). He portrays Ben with such authenticity, you actually feel the depths of his torturous emotions. Craig Roberts is downright fantastic – he delivers such a layered performance, that you really believed he has a disability and is angry about the hand that life has dealt him. Selena Gomez is captivating as she allows Dot’s beautiful soul to shine through the armor that shrouds it. The three are a triumphant triumvirate, winning the hearts of their audience in what is an excellent vehicle for them all. Fundamentals has some additional stand-outs in Megan Ferguson who is the vulnerable, likeable, and adorable Peaches, another soul in need of care by others; and Bobby Cannavale as Cash, Dot’s father, who also has lost his way.
There is so much that is excellent about this film. It is obvious that Evison and Burnett have done their research, beginning with the plethora of medications Trevor must take, his assistive devices, physical therapy, and needs for his daily self-care. Trevor’s physical limitations, including his reclusiveness (which does not affect all who have DMD, but may), are suitably illustrated. I have only a few criticisms: first, that there was some “cheating” of the character’s arm movements in numerous scenes – a young man at his advanced stage would not be able to lift his arms to do some of the things that he was seen doing. In addition, his gnarled fingers and fisted hands are not typical of an individual with DMD. Finally, it is clear that Trevor is on steroids – young men who have taken them most often experience a good deal of weight gain, and Trevor is slim. But these are issues that are likely only apparent to those of us who have personal experience with individuals afflicted with DMD.
Overall, the film was altogether heartwarming, frequently surprising, and often laugh-out-loud funny. It was clear that Ben and Trevor’s character arcs paralleled one another and each of them gained something from a relationship that began with loss and did not start out on the surest of footing. In fact, every character had experienced some kind of enduring loss, yet at the same time, each was capable of giving something to the others.
The Fundamentals of Caring is a film about loss and gain; taking and giving; grief and resilience. It is a story about life and death – but mostly life, and how best to live it. It also is a film well worth watching.