Where Hope GrowsPosted: May 19, 2015
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.