I recently wrote about how Paul Rudd inspires me on and off-screen. His films always bring me a sense of comfort but I omitted The Fundamentals of Caring from the films highlighted in that article, not because it isn’t one of my favourites, on the contrary — this film deserved more than a few short paragraphs. When I first played it all I knew was that Rudd was in it and basically that is the only criteria required for a definite watch. So it was quite a surprise to me that this movie would make me reflect quite so much on my own life.
Rudd plays Ben, a forty-something retired writer. That’s half a box ticked on the ‘I can relate to this’ scale already, but I’m not retiring just yet. His story is tragic, as his son was killed while under his supervision, and while it is never explicitly stated that this is the reason why, it appears that his wife cannot forgive him for the mistake and has filed for divorce — something Ben is not ready for. The Fundamentals of Caring is a story all about not being ready for the inevitable, but also about pushing yourself to do the things that scare you, and in facing those things, that is where you find life.
Ben decides he needs to get a job, pretty much any job, but he chooses ‘caregiver’ and completes a six-week course to become qualified to do so. Of course, he chose this career path for a reason, even if he wasn’t aware of it himself. To be a parent, to have someone to take care of and then suddenly have that taken away from you, that is a void that needs to be filled and the need for redemption must be fierce. His first job interview is to care for a young man who lives with his mother, Elsa (Jennifer Ehle). Trevor, played by the charismatic Welsh actor Craig Roberts of Submarine fame, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, diagnosed aged 3. His father left around the same time. This is pretty common when it comes to diagnoses, some parents do flee the scene. They just don’t know how to deal with, or perhaps they don’t believe they have what it takes to parent a child with additional needs. In that moment your life flashes in front of you — a world of imagined hospital visits, of medical equipment, expenses, bullying, being different, being stared at, everything being difficult, everything you did before impossible now, pain, death and grief.
My son was 3 days old when we were given his official diagnosis of Trisomy 21 (Downs Syndrome). It wasn’t expected and after weeping hysterically as that assumed future life flashed before my eyes, I turned to the uncomfortable midwives and doctors and told them that I loved my baby and no-one was going to take him away from me. I then turned to my husband and said he could leave if he wanted to. He didn’t of course, he wasn’t even scared like me, I’ll always admire him for that. From that moment on we just got on with it. We got on with it through his heart surgery, eye surgery, his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis and then his Autism diagnosis. This was where I related to Elsa, Trevor’s mother. I am sure to many her brash and matter-of-fact nature was a little shocking. She tells Ben that Trevor probably only has 6-8 years left to live, her priority was to make sure he made it that far. She reels off lists of medication he has to take, the physiotherapy he has to do daily, the equipment he requires, and his need for a strict regimen so that he doesn’t become anxious. It’s daunting to onlookers, no doubt, but she just gets on with it.
Elsa works in a bank, and I am pleased that this was her story, as it is important for people to know that even if your child does have a disability it doesn’t mean your life has to change completely. I have worked full-time throughout my son’s life. Is it easy? Not at all, but it’s doable if you are lucky enough to have support around you. A diagnosis doesn’t have to define your child or you. You are still the person you were before those words were let loose. Elsa hasn’t had support around her until now. Previous caregivers didn’t last long with Trevor and it’s easy to see why. Trevor is sardonic and he pushes people to their limits by making a mockery of their discomfort around him. It is human nature to be awkward around the unknown, but from the ‘unknowns’ point of view, they are just like everyone else, and if they are being an asshole they should be called out for it. This is what Trevor does, he tests people — those that don’t let him get away with it are the people he can trust.
Before long, Trevor and Ben build a strong bond. They get each other’s humour, play cruel pranks on each other, embarrass each other in public. It is very beautiful, and very true to life. The film does not try to gloss over what living with a disability is like. People need other people to wipe their asses. We all needed it as babies, and there’s a good chance that if we make it to our elderly years we’ll need it again then too. If you don’t require that help in the in-between years then count yourself lucky. Ben soon realises though that Trevor is wasting his life, sitting at home watching TV all day, only daydreaming about girls and eating waffles and sausages for every meal, every day. Knowing of Trevor’s fascination with really rubbish tourist attractions such as the World’s Biggest Bovine and the World’s Deepest Pit, he suggests they go on a road trip so that Trevor gets to experience life outside the four walls of his home.
Elsa is at first apprehensive, protective of her son and cautious about anything going wrong, like his CPAP machine breaking down or misplacing his meds. Ben eventually persuades her and things suddenly become real for Trevor and it’s his turn to panic. He’s not agoraphobic as such, he’s just scared of dying, and of living.
The film then turns into a kind of indie road movie. It is sentimental, funny and poignant. It turns out the World’s Biggest Bovine is kept up on the second floor of a barn, not accessible for wheelchair users, something that Ben is not going to let lie no matter how much Trevor protests that it doesn’t matter. With the help of some strapping young farm hands, Trevor does get to stare into the eyes of the massive cow in a scene reminiscent of the moment in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron finds himself in a moment of serious introspection in front of George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. While this scene is played with humour, and I am glad of that, it does make you realise just how difficult it sometimes is for less able-bodied people to experience what the rest of us can without a thought. Even if it is a total waste of time. Similarly, every restroom stop on the journey is cramped, disgustingly dirty and pretty much impossible for a wheelchair user to manoeuvre. There’s no denying it is funny and it’s funny because it is so recognisable, and it’s not being preached at you. It’s just a gentle poke at what life is like for disabled people, and the people who care for them, all over the world.
Along the way, Ben and Trevor come across an attractive and very sassy girl named Dot, played by Selena Gomez. While her name is fairly notorious, I had never seen her in anything before and was pleasantly surprised. Her character is mainly there to be a love interest for Trevor, but she holds her own as the no-nonsense, brash but kind-hearted hitchhiker. She doesn’t care about Trevor’s illness, she knows it doesn’t define him, nor does she pity him. Her attraction to him is genuine, her rebellious nature extends to her fondness for him, and not caring what anyone else might think. Again, this film is refreshing in that it doesn’t make a big deal out of this, and it’s not done with overblown sentimentality. It is never going to be the love story to end all love stories, as it is an impossible situation for them both, but it enriches the experiences of their lives no matter how fleeting.
The film leads us to expect some big romantic crescendo is going to happen. Trevor decides after meeting Peaches — a heavily pregnant woman whose car has broken down on the highway — that he should seek out his father, the man who left him aged 3 but had been writing letters to him, which Trevor had never read. The four of them now travel to his car dealership but it turns out his father is still an asshole, always has been, always will be. He didn’t write the letters, Trevor’s mother did. Trevor is devastated by lost hope and turns on Ben for leading him to this point, and the pair tell each other some very harsh truths. Perhaps Ben was filling the void that his son left by taking care of Trevor, but is that such a bad thing?
This is not just a journey for Trevor, but for Ben as along the way he’s forced to face his demons of guilt and realises that everyone experiences tragedy in their lives. It comes in different forms — sometimes you know that it’s coming like in Trevor’s case there will be no cure and he is going to die. For others, it comes without warning, like for Ben’s son. But ultimately, in one way or another, it will come to us all. Should we mourn the life we didn’t get or celebrate the one we have, however short it is? This film pulls at the heartstrings and of course, I think about my own child as I watch through floods of tears. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know it ends in sadness whichever way you look at it — the important thing is to make sure the middle bit is fun and filled with as much joy as possible. Elsa gets it right. Make it last as long as you possibly can, take one day at a time, and never have regrets. You never know what’s coming tomorrow.
Towards the end of the movie, Trevor does get to experience one of his dreams, in a Titanic-esque piss-take, literally, over the World’s Deepest Pit. It is glorious, charming and somewhat ridiculous and I love it for that. Ben finds his redemption in delivering a new life into the world and gives his wife the divorce she wanted. Free of his demons, he goes back to writing, this time about that handsome and cool kid Trevor, the one that changed his life.
This film isn’t going to change the world, but it may change some people’s world and I recommend it to everyone for that reason alone. The performances given by every cast member are outstanding. Rudd and Roberts work wonderfully together and the humour isn’t pushed too far. It is not forced or gross-out, as it is done with dignity, which fundamentally is what caring is all about.
As for me, personally, the way I look at my life is that I thought I was going to play poker, but it turns out the game is blackjack and the cards I was dealt add up to 21 and that’s not bad at all. There’s no need to pity me because I win.