Hollywood and the mainstream media in general is notorious for their negative, dismissive or inaccurate portrayals of people with disabilities. In some cases they seem to get it right, and are able to portray the nuances of disability without being patronising or stereotypical. Here are ten great movies about people with special needs:
Ray is a 2004 biopic focused on a 30 year period of the life of blues singer and musician Ray Charles. It begins with his upbringing on a sharecropping plantation in Northern Florida, and follows his life after he goes blind at the age of seven following the death of his younger brother in a drowning incident. Despite his disability he goes on to become one of the world’s greatest musical artists, with his unique combination of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, country, jazz and orchestral influences.
What it gets right: Rather than letting Ray’s blindness define him, the movie focuses on his personal life and incredible artistic and professional achievements. We are briefly shown in flashback form how he managed to navigate his disability, and the movie continues the narrative of his remarkable life with few – if any – further references to his condition.
2. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
This 1993 film follows 24-year-old Gilbert (a young Johnny Depp), a grocery store clerk who cares for his morbidly obese mother and mentally impaired younger brother in a sleepy Midwestern town. Their father committed suicide 14 years earlier, and Gilbert has taken on the role as father figure for the entire family. Gilbert struggles to care for his younger brother Arnie, who often runs away from home and attempts to climb the town’s water tower. It’s a bleak but compelling glimpse into the life of a carer.
What it gets right: It has been criticised for taking a more gritty and negative approach at times but that’s kind of the point – living with disability can be difficult for the entire family. The struggles, mixed emotions and difficult scenes can be hard to watch, but these make it easier to empathise with their situation.
3. My Left Foot
This gritty 1989 biopic is one of the most memorable films of all time. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, it tells the story of Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy, which meant that he could control only his left foot. Growing up in a poor working class family, Brown eventually became a world famous writer and artist. Central to the film is his relationship to his mother, and it also features his romantic partnership with Dr Eileen Cole, who takes him to a school for cerebral palsy patients and persuades her friend to hold an exhibition of his work.
What it gets right: My Left Foot broke all kinds of barriers, being one of the most iconic films about disability of all time. It is one of a select group of major mainstream films to feature a lead character who has cerebral palsy.
4. The King’s Speech
The King’s Speech is about King George VI, who is afflicted with a speech impediment. The central relationship is between the king and speech therapist Lionel Logue, who tries to cure the king of his stammer. Logue teaches muscle relaxation and breath control and probes at the psychological roots of the stutter, revealing the pressures of his childhood. They become friends, and after his brother abdicates the throne the new king relies on Logue to help him make his first wartime radio broadcast – Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939.
What it gets right: Disability does not discriminate and it effects people from all walks of life – kings, queens and commoners alike. The film shows struggles that are universal to the differently-abled, as they strive to fit in, fight for acceptance and convice others that their disabilities do not define them.
Shine is a multi award winning Australian biographical drama film based on the life of pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions. It opens with a disoriented Helfgott wandering through a heavy rainstorm, and tells his life story in a series of flashbacks. It documents his experiences studying under a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London, and his creative success is juxtaposed with his mental breakdown and admission to a psychiatric hospital, where he receives electric shock therapy.
What it gets right: Geoffrey Rush has been rightly lauded for his role as David Helfgott, and his truly transcendental performance landed him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1997. Mental illness is often romanticised in popular stories featuring artists and creatives, and “Shine” manages to show the personal toll it can take on relationships and careers.
6. I Am Sam
Sean Penn stars as a father with a developmental disability – single father to Lucy, a bright and inquisitive child. Despite taking care of her with the help on an extended support network of friends and neighbours, his parental rights are challenged. Enter the abrupt lawyer Rita Harrison, who agrees to take his case pro bono. Between then they fight for Sam’s right to full custody of his daughter, as the movie explores the moral, legal and practical issues around parenting when you are differently-abled.
What it gets right: We love that this film unashamedly advocates for Sam’s right to be a parent despite his disability. Movies can have a huge impact on popular opinion and people’s perceptions about disability, and “I Am Sam” showed that the love between parent and child is one of the most universal experiences in the world.
7. Rain Man
Charlie Babbit is a car salesman and hustler with a history of petty fraud. When Charlie’s estranged father dies he leaves the bulk of his $3 million inheritance to an unknown beneficiary. When a disgruntled Charlie investigates, he discovers that he has an autistic savant older brother, and he kidnaps him to try and obtain his share of the inheritance. But the plan strikes a hitch – along the way they get to know each other and Charlie discovers a love for his brother he never thought himself capable of.
What it gets right: “Rain Man” was a breath of fresh air at the time, because very few mainstream Hollywood movies featured one of their main characters as disabled. Dustin Hoffman did a stellar job of expressing the complexity and humanity of his character, elevating Raymond to someone who never attracts our pity.
Mask is one of those films that you never forget. Released in 1985, the film is based on the life and early death of Roy L. “Rocky” Dennis, a boy who suffered from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia an extremely rare disorder commonly known as lionitis, due to the disfiguring cranial enlargements that it causes. His mother is determined to give him as “normal” a life as possible, and fights for his inclusion in mainstream schools. She has to fight the prejudice and misinformation around Rocky’s condition, which leads people to presume he has a mental impairment. “Mask” is heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure.
What it gets right: The movie nails the sense of pain and isolation Rocky’s condition brings with it. It illustrates the fear, bigotry and prejudice that people with visible differences have to deal with on a daily basis as they go about their life, and the pain it causes their extended family. It’s hard but rewarding viewing.
9. Temple Grandin
This biopic is about the life of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who was able to succeed in her chosen profession despite the challenges posed by her condition. Despite the fact that she did not speak until the age of four and struggled through high school she went on to become an expert in the field of animal husbandry. With a supportive family and supportive teachers she went on to become a professor at the Colorado State University. She is widely recognised for inventing the “hug box” and designing humane ways of treating cattle in processing plants.
What it gets right: Autism is a spectrum but Hollywood often represents tired and inaccurate stereotypes that people with autism are mute and/or have extreme cognitive impairments. This movie features a different portrayal of autism, and the main character ends up as a professor at university.
10. Phoebe in Wonderland
Nine-year-old Phoebe lives with her mother and father, who are both authors. She has a wildly vivid imagination and becomes obsessed by the idea of participating in her school’s performance of “Alice in Wonderland”. The production is being overseen by her drama teacher, the enigmatic Miss Dodger. When Phoebe starts to develop some strange behaviours with the onset of Tourette’s Syndrome her teacher becomes her champion. All of this takes place as her parents deal with the complexities of their own relationship.
What it gets right: We love that this truly captures the interior life of a young girl, and that it documents the vivid mental twists and turns this takes as her Tourette’s Syndrome develops as well. It also deals with what happens when other siblings feel neglected as their differently-abled sibling requires attention.
Hollywood has produced some wonderful movies over the years, and when it comes to individuals with special needs they sometimes hit very wide of the mark. This list contains ten examples of the times they got it right, and they’re all incredible films to boot.