Sunday, May 8, 2011

Film #140: Disabled But Able to Rock

14 years in the making, Blake Myers' Disabled But Able to Rock packs a surplus of emotion into telling the unusual story of Betsy Goodrich, a highly-functioning autistic woman living in Atlanta, Georgia. Betsy has made a name for herself in that city (and perhaps internationally) by masquerading as a superhero named Danger Woman, who takes as her prime directive the fight against what she calls "the evil Triphobes: raceophobia, homophobia, and especially disabaphobia." And who can argue with that?

The first act of Disabled But Able to Rock has its roots in a documentary that director Myers did for his film class at Georgia State University in the late 1990s. In it, Myers' camera trained itself on Betsy's alternate life as this eccentric, good-hearted superhero making a name for herself as a perennial guest-of-honor at Dragon*Con, one of the largest sci-fi/horror/fantasy/comic conventions in America (only San Diego's Comic-Con and New York's Comic-Con can lay claim to higher attendance). Betsy's gutsy stage performances include scads of drama, comedy, action, and music, and are always highly attended at Dragon*Con (this lady is a tornado of talent). In scenes like where she conducts the room in singing along with Joey Scarbury's top-40 theme to 70s TV show The Greatest American Hero, you can feel the genuine love flowing amidst the audience.

Now, here, the cynical might think this is all rashly exploitative. Even Blake Myers admitted (upon the Q&A after his film's premiere at the recently concluded Atlanta Film Festival) that he initially worried his own intentions weren't true enough. Though, as all who know Betsy (full disclosure--myself included), it's not easy to discount her act as some sort of freak show. There are occasional moments of discomfort when her uncontrollable disability shines through (and the film is courageous in including these times). But what most impresses anyone who's met her--or anyone who eventually sees this movie--is that she is undeniably sweet, friendly, hilarious, uniquely talented (even if you're not a fan of her sometimes shrill singing voice), and radically articulate (I love how she greets people with the classy exclamation "I'm honored"). And her performances on-stage lead all who're watching to a greater acceptance of life's eccentricity. But the film is so much more radically captivating beyond that self-congratulatory state.

As a result of his obvious care for Betsy's offbeat soul, Myers began expanding his school project into a feature. This required that he delve deeper into her past and future. And so then, in the film's second act, Disabled But Able to Rock morphs into something more fiercely profound. Myers was granted full access to her family, including her cloistered-away mother Susan (an extremely honest, and often wry presence in the film), her more seriously disabled brother Jebby, and her caring cousins, all of whom later arrive to deepen this tale of two afflicted siblings struggling to make a life for themselves on their own.

In this way, the film resembles Ira Wohl's Oscar-winning 1979 movie Best Boy, about a severely mentally disabled man in his 50s trying to break away from his elderly parents. But, while that great documentary hits many of the same notes as this one, it arguably (as much as I love that film's endearing Philly) lacks one thing: the incredibly winning, wise personality of Betsy Goodrich. She confesses, in one of Disabled's best scenes, that she used to get angry at people laughing at her antics, but then she realized that she is, indeed, "cute and funny." And so it isn't a problem for her anymore. I adore that confession, because it's true: she IS cute and funny.

The film is sometimes technically clunky; there are scenes that need some correcting in that regard. But, in a way, this is also a film about a filmmaker honing his craft, because you can sense that Myers is learning much as he goes along. And he packs a lot of mastery into 14 years; it's easy to see his progress, (especially given this final edit). The director rarely appears on screen (he's there at Dragon*Con with a now long-gone red-spiked mohawk, asking Danger Woman to relinquish her hold on a game Dragon*Con "villain" whom she eventually ends up hugging). But you can always feel Myers' delicate presence behind the camera, gingerly attempting to understand Betsy's ways. His voice is always comforting and understanding, but never condescending.

Never more is this in evidence than when Myers focuses in on Betsy's hopes for the future. After her mother's death in their dilapidated Atlanta home, both Betsy and her brother Jebby are relegated to living in assisted communities. But while this is fine and necessary for her more deeply afflicted brother, the often sharper-than-sharp Betsy has ambitions far beyond this state. She expresses the desire to work amongst "the normals," to live on her own, and to get married (though she's up front about having particular standards when it comes to men, and that surprisingly includes disregarding those who are similarly disabled--a dichotomy that clearly interests the filmmaker). Her overtures to a blonde-mulleted gentleman attending Dragon*Con have charming, and alternatingly disquieting, notes that ring with her heart's cravings.

Though there are no villains in this film about a superhero (and how great is that?), there are down times here. The first visions of Betsy and Jebby's home life elicit gasps; with books and papers and dishes and dirt piled up everywhere, the scene looks like something out of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's acclaimed (and not dissimilar) documentary Brother's Keeper. And, while the filmmaker doesn't dwell too long on these moments, the tales of Jebby's youthful victimization at the hands of a molester, or of their dentist father's death from an overdose of chloroform, each pack a resonating punch.

And so, you must understand, Disabled But Able to Rock flaunts a plethora of the truest human feelings--and this is exactly what movies are all about. Myers is patently unafraid of hitting the heights of each: hilarity, sadness, discomfort, friendliness, and hope chief among them. It's a movie unlike any I've ever seen, and am likely to see again, because it has no villains except the misconceptions by "the normals." Instead, it simply chooses to center in on such a brave and unencumbered being like Betsy. I'm extremely happy to report that Disabled But Able to Rock just landed the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 35th Atlanta Film Festival. I hope that the exceedingly dedicated director Blake Myers, his enthusiastic crew (the editing by Myers, Matt Munson and Tim O'Donnell deserves special mention), and the awesome Danger Woman go on to even greater triumphs. They certainly deserve to. In a culture now packed with ersatz superheroes, they each might be the most realistically super heroes we can hope for.

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