Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jane at the Movies

My twenty-one-year-old daughter, Jane, has Down syndrome, and for most of those twenty-one years, the writer in me has tried to imagine and describe in words how she perceives the world. Jane knows she is different; she’s intelligent enough to know what she is missing in life. Caught between the world of her special needs school friends and the “normal” world she must negotiate, I believe she feels like an alien from another planet.

On her planet, time moves more slowly. Here on Earth, everything happens too fast; people talk too fast. The speed of our world taxes her brain. On her planet, gravity is less forceful. Here, by the end of the day, gravity weighs on her poor muscle tone to the point of exhaustion. Also, on her planet, people are built differently. With a short stature and a low metabolism that leads to being overweight, Jane has trouble finding Earthling clothing that will fit her short stature. On her planet, everything happens the same way every day; but the hectic and capricious nature of our modern world causes Jane consternation when she has to alter her routine.

But Jane enjoys some of Earth’s advantages. Earth has Disneyland in Anaheim, Jane’s favorite place in the world. Earth has swimming pools that provide a liberating anti-gravity environment. Earth has a very curious pop culture with idols like Aaron Carter, Hilary Duff, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, Jane’s most admired people. Most importantly, Earth has movie theaters.

When my wife and I showed Jane our VHS copy of Bambi when she was very young and could hardly speak, bowl of popcorn in her lap, she watched the movie enraptured and then made the hearing-impaired sign for “more” and we played it again. After she was old enough to go to the movies, Jane and I developed a weekend ritual of going out to lunch on Sunday and then going to a movie.

This took me to all sorts of films that I would have definitely skipped otherwise, such as The Lizzie Maguire Movie and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium – but she also took me to see family movies such as The Rookie and The Astronaut Farmer, which I really enjoyed. Also, without Jane, there’s a good chance I may never have seen The Emperor’s New Groove – which we thought was hilarious and led to at least three in-theater viewings, and I have to admit that I only went to see August Rush because of Jane – but I really enjoyed it despite the schmaltz and Robin Williams.

Whenever Jane watches a movie, she follows it intently, never taking her eyes off the screen. Face reflecting the light of the image, eyes wide, she focuses on the dialogue that goes too fast for her to follow completely, and it’s very touching to see her eyes go especially wide for scenes of wonder – and to see them grow kind of misty during the touching scenes that she loves.

What touches her? She loves movies about little lost kids – she really liked Martian Child and Autumn Rush for that reason. She loves all versions of Oliver Twist, from the Roman Polanski film to the Disney animated film Oliver and Company. She loves movies about dogs. She loves movies about teens in love. She loves any movie with happy teenaged girls in happy families.

She’s a sucker for sports movies of all kinds, and she totally loves the unbelievable come-from-behind dramatic victory with the loud fanfare and the embarrassing reaction shots of teary-eyed coaches and cheering fans – so this has taken me to see Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Glory Road, Pride, The Longshots – all very enjoyable movies. Now that she is older, Jane doesn’t mind if she sees the likes of High School Musical 3 alone while I abandon her to see another movie. But I am glad that because of her I have seen Akeelah and the Bee and other movies I would have missed otherwise.

Because she needs to watch a movie multiple times to fully catch all the dialogue, Jane will see her favorite movies three times in a theater, and then she will add to her vast DVD/VHS collection. She gets the most out of her purchases – watching her movies many times over. Her tastes are eclectic and range from the facile to the sophisticated. Thus, her movie library contains everything from John Tucker Must Die and High School Musical to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, all six Star Wars films (little Anakin is another waif she loves), Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Finding Neverland, and The Crucible (because it has Winona Ryder in it).

Without beating around the bush, I hereby proclaim that Jane’s pick for the best film of 2008 is High School Musical 3, a film that went unseen by most movie bloggers. For the sake of research, I watched the original High School Musical, and I happened to slip in and see the grand finale in HSM3 when I came to pick her up one afternoon. I can see why Jane likes these films. They are pure, feel-good fantasy in which beautiful teens get along with each other and dance and sing in a high school world safe from ostracism and violence. If only the world could be like High School Musical. Well, maybe not quite like it.

Her second favorite film of the year was Twilight. She hasn’t followed the Twilight craze, but she went with me on my encouragement. She liked the romance – the teenage point of view; she likes any story that takes place in a high school, whether the story involves musical numbers or vampires – elements that might be anathema to other viewers. Jane also goes to movies based on her familiarity with the performers. In this case, she and I were more in the know about Kristen Stewart’s filmography, having seen Stewart as a young teen in Catch That Kid. She saw Indiana Jones and Eagle Eye because of Shia LeBeouf. We saw The Longshots because of Keke Palmer, star of Akeelah and the Bee.

After initial avoidance of it, she went to see The Dark Knight. I bet she was tense throughout the whole movie. Asked if she liked Heath Ledger, she said, “No. I liked Christian Bale.” I’m sure Ledger’s Joker was too scary for her. With equal courage – only kidding – Jane saw Mamma Mia two or three times. That’s one I was happy to let her see alone.

Along with millions of other viewers – but not with us – Jane contributed to the success of Beverly Hills Chihuahua – though she felt a little disappointed when this Chihuahua film did not include what the preview seemed to promise – huge production numbers including hundreds of computer-animated Chihuahuas. That was faulty advertising for sure! Together last year, we saw everything from The Spiderwick Chronicles and Step Up 2 to Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.

We saw Australia together on Thanksgiving Day. I knew it was long, but there was no other movie of equal length she wanted to see at the same time, so I coaxed her into seeing it with me. I was worried, but she liked it. The silliness, the exaggerated nature of it, the melodramatic romance, and the schmaltzy happy ending were perfect for Jane. The character of Nullah was right up her alley – an aboriginal Oliver Twist.

Seeing WALL-E together was an interesting experience. Since Jane loves movies about cute lost-and-lonely waifs, I thought WALL-E would be a winner. But for a girl with Down syndrome, the latter half of the film is a nightmare. It’s too fast; there’s too much going on at the same time. I, too, found it tough to follow – all those robots whizzing around, all those fast cuts – and I have only come to enjoy the second half after multiple viewings. When Jane re-watched WALL-E on DVD and focused on the expressiveness of that charming little Load Lifter, she liked it a lot more.

Finally, we saw Marley and Me together. It was Jane’s second time. I enjoyed the film – though I was dry-eyed during the film’s tragic ending. I’m not a dog lover. Our family owns a dog, but he would have to go if he was as demonic as Marley. Jane, however, got emotional; she has a big soft spot in her heart for doggies – and she never saw a dog movie she didn’t like.

This year is stacking up slowly for movies that interest Jane – though she enjoyed Confessions of a Shopaholic, and she has Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to look forward to. I’m growing tired of the franchise, but I’ll see it with Jane, and halfway through the film, I’ll look over and see her awestruck expression washed with the light of that magical screen.


Ed Howard said...

I just have to say, what a beautiful post.

Jason Bellamy said...

Beautiful job! It's terrific that Jane maintains that first-timer's awe of films that so many of us lose somewhere along the way. We love movies, sure. But we spot their cliches and their mistakes. Or we notice all the ways that the movie we're watching is a poor imitation of something else. It seems as if each experience for Jane gets a clean slate. That's awesome!

Richard Bellamy said...

Ed - Thanks very much. You know how fathers are. If they are baseball fans, they love it when their kids pick up a bat and say, "This is what I love." For me, it's rewarding that my daughter has found so much joy in movies. Meanwhile, my sixteen-year-old son has turned into an astute judge of what constitutes a great film - from years of raiding my DVD collection. Also, he has developed a viewing patience that is not usual of the iPod generation.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - I am always impressed by Jane's capacity for re-watching movies. Indeed, she really enjoys the repeated event - and it's great that that little 2-hour - or however long - package can deliver again and again.

Also, although her tastes are eclectic, she is critical. Ledger's Joker: too scary. Depp's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: stupid. When we watch previews, she will turn to me and say either "Definitely seeing that" or "No way!"

Fox said...


This is just a great post that flattens out everything else going on in the blogosphere when you read it.

Jane's experience at the movies sounds so much more genuine and human than the rest of us seem to muster anymore (that is a fault of ours... I don't blame the movies).

Thanks for making my heart swell up... and yes, my eyes welled up too.

P.S. I think Akeelah and the Bee is a great film. It makes me excited that you and Jane both love it b/c I felt that movie went overlooked.

Richard Bellamy said...

Fox - Thanks for the comment. You're right - Akeelah got overlooked - and I would have missed it if not for Jane. Also - the first Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. That was a superbly acted, nicely edited film that really hits you with a powerful ending. Check it out.

In a given film year - I'm out there seeing films like There Will Be Blood and Revolutionary Road, but I'm glad Jane takes me to those other cinematic experiences. Jane keeps me open-minded about movies - because Jane herself has said, "I'll see anything."

But there's a funny side story to that which didn't quite fit into my post. During February school vacation my wife and I took Jane up to Cambridge to spend the night and we went to the Landmark Kendall Square to see The Class. We were worried about the subtitles, but she loves movies about kids in school, so we thought she'd enjoy it. She watched it attentively and never complained. She never took her eyes off the screen. Then, as we were walking out, she said - almost like an old lady coming out of Pacino's Scarface: "I will never go to a movie like that again!" - meaning a movie with subtitles. I was hoping the film would be a little more visual - but you really have to read the subtitles like crazy to follow the banter between Marin and his very talkative students. And sometimes everybody's talking at once. Poor girl, it must have been a nightmare for her. As a reward, back at the hotel, she got to watch High School Musical 3 on pay-per-view.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, hokahey - I have nothing to add except agreement with the praise of the other comments.

Though you may be interested to read Dennis Cozzolo's "High School Musical 3: Things My Daughter Taught Me" which is similarly themed to your post, and also takes up the issue of fatherly enjoyment of the High School musical franchise (thanks to seeing it through a daughter's eyes).

Joel Bocko said...

I'm not sure if I included the link in my last comment. Here it is:

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks very much - and I will go to that site. In the past couple of years I've enjoyed some of the movies I've seen with my daughter much more than some of the more critically acclaimed films. There's something to be said for a film that is intended as an entertainment. We need more films like that.

Daniel said...

Really moving post, hokahey, as others have commented. I don't think I'll be looking at those "immature" movies in the same way going forward.

Did you two see Bedtime Stories? While it's an out-and-out kids movie so she's probably too old for it, I expect that it has some of the same type of humor/comedy/romance as some of the others that you listed here. I actually found myself liking it quite a lot more than I expected to.

Great story about The Class, too. Well not "great" for her, but amusing. And I miss the Kendall! (I went to BU and it was one of my haunts).

Also: "Depp's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: stupid." = she has excellent taste!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, Daniel. Actually, Jane rather liked Bedtime Stories and saw it twice. I think she thinks Adam Sandler is cute. And sometimes a very light entertainment like that is just what she needs because it's not hard to follow at all. This coming weekend we're going to see Race to Witch Mountain.

You miss the Kendall; I wish it were on Cape Cod where I live. I usually make a trip up there in December to see films that take a month longer to get down to the Cape - if they get down here at all.

Wenderina said...

This was lovely. Thank you for sending me on this journey from your other blog.

Richard Bellamy said...

Wenderina - You are most welcome.