Distributed by Global Film Initiative, 145 Ninth St., #105, San Francisco, CA 94103
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
DVD, color, 92 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
Film Studies, Social Work, Disability Studies
Reviewed by Oksana Dykyj, Head, Visual Media Resources, Concordia University, Montreal
Date Entered: 6/4/2012
South African director Oliver Hermanus’ first feature film instills the viewer with the reality of the struggle of being a caregiver for a disabled child under difficult circumstances. Denise Newman, who plays the title role, conveys so much dignity and determination as she toils bathing her son, washing clothes by hand in a bathtub, even shoplifting food to make ends meet, that she transforms her character as an icon expressing the strength of all caregivers. Few fiction films dealing with the care of the disabled have been able to accurately communicate the hardships, physical and mental that end up being imposed on caregivers.
The film uses documentary-like techniques to engage viewers in the difficult life of Shirley Adams and her son Jonathan in a depressed suburb of Capetown. The film begins with Donovan’s suicide attempt and its aftermath. Backstories are slowly revealed to fill in the blanks about the shooting that resulted in Donovan’s loss of mobility, the desertion of his father leaving his mother destitute after having to quit her job to take care of him, and his increasingly fragile emotional state that despite all Shirley does for him, leads him into depression and self-pity. The addition of a social work student presents all the pitfalls and aspirations of attempts to provide help to caregivers.
Shot in digitally in 1080p high definition, the film attempts to reflect the reality of Shirley’s life, using natural light and mostly close-ups with jerky camera movements. The result is a film that is rather flat and murky. This technique is, on the one hand a way in which to put the viewer into the frame with the reality of the action, but it is also a very frustrating device that may have the opposite effect on many viewers. There are clearly too many shots of the back of Shirley’s neck as she goes about dealing with her caregiving that are superfluous and unintentionally irritating to the viewer because in such instances everything beyond her neck is out of focus. A short shot would simply convey the message while a long narrative exposition presented this way is confusing and creates an involuntary distance with the character. In this case style over substance negatively reflects on the narrative.
Simply overlooking the film’s now clichéd jerky camera work in a fake documentary style, it is easy to focus on the straightforward portrait of courage and grace and examine how societies have not yet successfully dealt with all the problems facing caregivers. The DVD also provides a valuable discussion guide along with a director biography and film notes.