Where Hope Grows

Before we start—there are a couple plot hints I discuss here that I don’t think give away the movie, but take away a tiny bit of its suspense. I emphasize, tiny. Minuscule, really, electron-sized. I’ve warned you though, so my conscience is clean.

Watching “Where Hope Grows” made me feel like I was at the mercy of an inexperienced dance partner who, despite the best of intentions, kept stepping on my toes. Sometimes it was just a minor irritation, and sometimes it downright hurt.

David DeSanctis (Produce) is a wonderful, talented actor. There were beautiful moments when the actors danced just right and the chemistry felt genuine, mostly in scenes just between DeSanctis and Polaha. The rest was a mess of formulaic plot device and stereotypes.

The plot rushes Calvin through a completely unbelievable about-face from his years of destructive drinking to sudden sobriety, responsible parenting, and even being an advocate who tries to get others to let go of the r-word. In the rush, Chris Dowling employs a steady stream of overused tropes to illustrate a heavy-handed Christian message of faith and redemption.

Aging washed up baseball player struggles with old demons. Alcoholic father sobers up within days for his unusually mature for her age daughter. High school jock pressures girlfriend to have sex, then threatens violence when he can’t get what he wants. Cheating wife learns her lesson a moment too late. And, last, but not least, a broken man finds redemption by learning deep and simple life lessons from a disabled friend.

On the topic of disability, the good intentions of the movie are plain. It makes a play for the value of inclusion, tries to challenge the use of the r-word, and Chris Dowling obviously writes the character with Down syndrome in a way that takes aim at negative stereotypes. DeSanctis’s character lives independently, has a job, a great sense of humor, and a lot of self-awareness. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, none of this shocks me but I do understand that for others some of this might be a surprise. So while touting abilities isn’t the most effective way to advocate for inclusion in my book, I did appreciate what the film was attempting.

But every time the film tried to take on any issue of importance I cringed. When Calvin lectures the black grocery store manager about the reasons not to use the r-word like “we” don’t use the n-word, I was honestly not sure whether Calvin meant the royal “we” or was referring to white Americans. Either way, not great. It felt like the dialogue was being forced into a moral fantasy of sorts, but just as that satisfying imaginary tell off works out so perfectly in our heads it never does in reality. Did Dowling never consider that it might be tricky territory to stake his point of the offensive nature of the r-word by having his white character lecture a black man about the n-word? Not to mention, unlikely to happen at all.

It is hard to miss the obvious juxtaposition of Calvin’s daughter Katie and Milt’s wife; both plot lines play out some pretty banal moralization about sex and marriage. Calvin’s potential love interest is a bland but pretty character who is conveniently not only friends with Produce, but also pops up at the local AA meeting. Neil Genzlinger of the NYT had it right: “This is a common and loathsome element in these types of films: If a fallen man will only embrace Jesus, a luscious romantic reward could be his.”

I tried getting over these (sort of not) minor irritations, as well as the numerous other trite moments like the “main character hits rock bottom and drinks himself to oblivion on a baseball diamond under the pouring rain” scene, or the “smash every bottle of booze you’ve got and never look back” scene, or even the hugging and the Rain Man reference. The makers of the film seemed to have their hearts in the right place, and my pleasure at seeing DeSanctis’s acting made me want to forgive the rest.

But by the end, it felt too much that disability was a literary device and inclusion merely a side benefit. In a film about brokenness and the power of faith, Produce is written in an almost otherworldly way. In fact, he doesn’t even have an actual name. I kept waiting for the moment when Calvin would ask him what his real name was and the teachable moment that would follow, but it never came. Instead, Produce is a Christian Obi-wan Kenobi, ever-wise and promising salvation if only the broken Calvin could see the world through his nameless eyes. His unfailing honesty, loyalty, and faith are good traits, to be sure, but I found myself unable to be pleased at this supposedly positive portrayal because it seemed to stem from a lack of natural human complexity, rather than simply superior moral character. Produce gets threatened, mocked, ignored, and disrespected, and yet he stays the course without batting an eye. Even if I am to believe a person could be so unflinchingly good, I cannot believe that it doesn’t come with great effort and sacrifice.

In fact, I found Produce’s rendering entirely too close to the angel imagery that is so often thrust upon people with disabilities. If you are not familiar with the angel phenomenon, it is the idea that people with Down syndrome (and other disabilities) are spiritually pure beings in broken bodies who are put on earth to lead the rest of us closer to God. When Produce is literally handing out the Word of God as he struggles to live, I half expected to see a halo over his head.

It felt like the message was that people with disabilities should be included because of what they can do for others, not simply because it is the right thing to do. Because what happens if the individual isn’t a spiritual stalwart? What happens if he isn’t independent, costs money to support, or isn’t perfectly charming under stress? I absolutely think that an argument in favor of inclusion is that it benefits all, but that’s not the main reason inclusion is important. Inclusion is important because it is right, end of story.

I’m much more a fan of how “Glee”, “American Horror Story”, and even “Shameless” treat the topics of Down syndrome and disability. They make their points without needing to get up on a pulpit and spell it out to their audiences, and because of that, their characters have room to be more fully human. Even when they do get up on the pulpit, they’re examining that pulpit as they’re up there.

I know that some think that “Where Hope Grows” is shattering stereotypes, but I think that the movie does the opposite. The derivative plot line ends up inadvertently reinforcing the stereotypes it seeks to break down. Something like a meat company that advertises by claiming “We’ve got the cleanest beef in the business, no salmonella here!” Unfortunately, all one walks away with are the words “beef” and “salmonella” bouncing against each other.

I wish the film had focused on the one thing it had going for it, which was the chemistry between DeSanctis and Polaha. Without needing to check off a laundry list of moral lessons, the film could have been an understated, thoughtful look at redemption, faith, and the power of inclusion. I kept thinking of “Spring Forward” and how well that movie had shown two equally flawed characters who offer each other their strengths and support their weaknesses. There is no such equal footing in “Where Hope Grows.”

I’d still recommend seeing the movie because DeSanctis is such a wonderful actor. My toes feel beat up, but I’m ok with that, because DeSanctis is worth it. Just don’t expect a cinematic masterpiece.  Maybe this review will spur you to see it for yourself so you can tell me I’m wrong. In that case, you’re still supporting DeSanctis, and we get to discuss how the film could have done better. That seems like a win-win situation. I’ll see you in the comments.

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18 Comments on “Where Hope Grows”

  1. I have not seen it yet, but it sounds like unfortunately, it lived up to my fears for.
    Honestly, I was really uncomfortable when I heard that it was a “faith based” movie, so I was totally biased from the get-go. I just kind of hoped that being a parent of a kid with Ds and a friend to many with d/d, that my biases for the bad and for the good would be a wash.

    I will see it to learn for myself, and also to support David DeSanctis. I am happy for him and happy for the other actors with Ds that may get more roles.

    BTW, American Horror Story gets it right. I agree. It’s not pretty a lot of the time, but the characters are fully fledged human beings, not caricatures.

    I’m sure I will have more to say after I see it.

    Thanks for the review!

    • jisun says:

      Yes, AHS is so good, I wish it weren’t so darned creepy, because I cannot watch it after the kids go to bed! I’m getting old, I tell ya.

  2. Galit says:

    I felt that it handled the religious angle much better than most Christian movies (I know, low bar…) The church scenes reminded me most of Home Alone. And the stereotyping and cliched plot pretty much par for the course for an American movie (again, low bar…) Within the framework it was in (movie for popular consumption vs. artsy film) I felt it did a really good job of handling complex issues of addiction (Calvin certainly did look back, and struggled with it when Milton was having a beer, “come on, just one sip!”), consent (Katie wants to be sexually active, but she also wants to be loved and respected. Several times she almost gets it on with Colt, who can’t seem to be able to not be a jerk.), and parenting (How can one parent effectively while being a flawed individual with a complicated past?). All in all, I cringed a couple of times during the movie, but was mostly quite impressed!

    • jisun says:

      See, I found all those “almost” moments to be completely unbelievable. Usually the buddy does give the friend that one sip, the teenager will not just wonder yet hold firm. And Colt, such a cheesy villain jock! I think I could have had a willing suspension of disbelief if the movie had not been so heavy handed with the moral lessons, but…

      I’ve had more than one person tell me that they thought it was good compared to other faith based films, and I suppose there’s something to that. I read an interview of Polaha saying that he really wanted a secular audience to watch it, and I thought, oh dear, well then you ought to tone down the religion! Probably not what he’d want to hear.

      • Galit says:

        Was it any less believable than the “almost” moments in any other mainstream movie? For crying out loud, after WHG we had dinner and then watched the Avengers movie. No suspension of disbelief required there….. :-)

        • jisun says:

          See but that is the *Avengers*! I was telling my husband, if they had done this as a black comedy, it would have been genius! But they were trying to make a very serious film and it never worked for me. I hope all is well in your neck of the woods, I haven’t been writing much lately and missed your comments. :)

  3. Sheila says:

    I went into it pretty skeptical and during the whole film I was mentally noting how many times it could’ve gone really wrong. But, for the most part, it didn’t. Could it have been better? Yes. Could it have been worse? Definitely. I don’t disagree with your review, but it’s possible my expectations were so low I didn’t get too worked up about it. I was just happy that the really bad roads I thought it might go down, it didn’t. The big glaring miss was his name. I felt that was poor. Even if they wanted it to be cute and he had a nickname, you’re right, at some point I kept expecting us to learn it and we never do. I didn’t think the Christian angle was too in your face, but I do think that aspect led to the unrealistic portrayals you pointed out. The best reason to see it is certainly for David’s performance, because he was great.

    • jisun says:

      Maybe this is a case of expectation being different, because you’re not the only one who has said that you went in low but ended up pleasantly surprised. To me, that begs the question, why is the bar so low? I don’t have any issue with going to see a faith based film, but whatever I see, I want it to be good. Not just good for a faith based film, you know? I personally found the Christian elements to be very in your face, not because they are there, but because it felt so simplistic. But again, there’s context, because friends have told me that amongst is peers, this film is understated, so I get where you might be coming from.

  4. Sheila says:

    That should read the Christian angle WASN’T too in your face.

  5. cathleen907 says:

    I agree with your review. I really WANTED to like this movie, and I do like that they used an actor with DS to portray a man with DS–too often, Hollywood uses typical actors to portray characters with a disability, which is disappointing. So I’m glad they found a talented actor with DS to play the part, and I thought he was terrific. But if you take DS out of the equation and just look at the movie for its entertainment value, I thought it was pretty cheesy. It reminded me of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. And there’s an audience for those movies, for sure—I’m just not a big fan of them. Too many cliches, not enough character depth, not clear enough motivations…. So on its merits, I just didn’t think it was a great movie by any stretch. Throw DS back into the equation, and I have problems with some of how that was handled. My biggest beef was with the DUI scene. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I was appalled at how they handled that. I’m supposed to laugh at a friendship where one person uses another so blatantly?!

    • jisun says:

      The drunk driving scene. Sigh. I would have felt differently of the whole thing were Produce’s idea, but it clearly was not.

  6. Andrew says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful review! While I agree with a lot of your thoughts, I really struggle with reviews in general. The truth is, I don’t think this movie was made for you or a demographic of people who think like you. It’s made for people who like these types of movies… and a lot of families that are affected by disability like this type of movie (and tee shirts that say “I love someone with Ds”). I guess I feel like unless there is something glaringly evil, this population should be allowed to have a movie made that resonates with them. I refuse to say my beliefs are better than theirs and play into academic elitism. I know that is not your intent at all. Hopefully there will be a day soon where a movie is more complex and delves into disability and issues in a more thoughtful way but for the time being I think it’s

    • jisun says:

      Well, except I am part the demographic this is made for, we have a child with Down syndrome and I love him very much. I do feel like the way disability is represented in the media has a direct effect on my life and my son’s. I do understand what it seems like you were getting ready to say, however, about this being a step forward, even if it is imperfect. I’ve got mixed feelings on that, but I do hear your point.

      • Andrew says:

        I guess I think it is imperfect to you but not to other parents who have children with Ds. Who decides what’s good and what’s bad? Who gets to decide what message the disability community puts forth and which views they collectively decide to accept?
        I think it’s presumptive to speak for all parents with a child with Ds but I do agree it is your right to share your thoughts. I think the demographic it was made for was Christian conservative families and I’m not sure whether that would fit you but I’d guess not.

        • jisun says:

          Are you a parent in the community Andrew?

          I’m certainly not going to proclaim myself as “the decider”, nor do I am to speak for all parents who have a child with Ds. I’m just one person, who has an opinion. I do want to make two points specific to your last comment. I’ve read that Dowling meant to reach Christian as well as secular audiences, and Polaha has stated that he hopes secular audiences will watch the movie as well. I think it is clear this film hopes to reach past Christian conservatives. Regardless, I’m not sure why you think that because a film might or might not be meant for me has any bearing on my opinion. A feature length film running in a major theater is not a private phone conversation, after all. I’d also like to say that this film took me for a dance, not the other way around. The makers of this film took deliberate steps to create a message about disability and inclusion, in effect, inviting others into a conversation.

          I’m not calling for this movie to be silenced. In fact, I’d like more people to see it and think critically about it.

  7. Allison Wohl says:

    There has been so much hype around this movie in the DS community and I have watched the trailer so many times that I asked a friend who had seen it: “let me guess–man with DS “inspires” a washed-up baseball player to find Jesus.” She replied “yep.” REALLY? I much prefer the complexity of the Becky character on “Glee” because she is mean sometimes and has real issues that other teenagers have. She is not a one-dimensional “angel” character. These movies walk back our advocacy by reinforcing stereotypes. I am a mom of a 5 year old son with DS and a professional advocate. I don’t think I can bring myself to see the movie because I spend my days educating others that people with developmental disabilities are human beings with a wide range of emotions; they also have dreams, hopes and lives. They do not exist to inspire you.

  8. sh3211 says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful review of the movie. It takes courage to provide such an insightful and honest review in contrast to the glowing reviews from others. (Part of me wonders if people say that loved the movie because they feel like by supporting the movie, they are supporting individuals with Down syndrome?) I really wanted to like this movie but didn’t for many of the reasons that you stated. Granted, I’m not in the target demographic and found the co-mingling of religion with DS awareness to be off-putting. I found it ironic that the movie attempted to break one set of stereotypes (showing that people with DS can live alone and have jobs) by fortifying a totally different set of stereotypes (people with DS are happy all the time, can do no wrong, and can even rescue a self-destructive alcoholic through their goodness). Basically, the simplicity of the characters (where they were all either “good” and went to church or “bad” and stole, raped, lied) made the movie hard to watch. Despite the undeniable talent of David DeSanctis, I found myself rolling my eyes as the story line progressed because it was just so unbelievable. Thanks again for your review.


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