It’s hard to determine if people with disabilities are being mocked in Pumpkin, or if it’s a subtle satire of image-obsessed Los Angeles sorority girls instead. Neither are portrayed in an entirely positive light.
The action centers around the so-called Challenged Games, in preparation for which the sorority girls volunteer to provide one-on-one coaching. Their primary motivation is winning a Sorority of the Year contest, and being seen associating with the disabled will cast them in a positive light in the eyes of the judges. A couple of the girls oppose the idea, on the grounds that the social contact with presumably normal people will only serve to make the “challenged athletes” self-conscious about their disabilities. And indeed the two naysayers completely botch their introductions to the athletes they’re paired with: one girl flees in terror, and the other, Carolyn, begins screaming uncontrollably when she thinks her charge, Pumpkin, is looking at her funny.
(Pumpkin is neither rotund nor orange, it’s his overbearing mother’s infantilizing nickname for him. It’s unclear how much he’s actually affected by his developmental disabilities; certainly he has trouble with balance and coordination, and his speech is affected, but Pumpkin shows he has the cognitive capacity to carry on conversations, make decisions, etc.)
Yes, Carolyn’s worst fears have come true. Pumpkin has fallen in love with her, and to prove it his disability starts magically going away! Love has done what modern medicine and years of school-based physical therapy could not! The brief glimpse of a pretty blonde girl running away screaming is enough to motivate our hero into standing and walking! (Albeit with comical windmilling attempts to balance himself.) Because all he needed was willpower!
(Had I been physically capable of it, this is where the facepalming would have begun.)
At first Carolyn attempts to deflect Pumpkin’s attentions by setting him up on a double date, pairing him with a girl Carolyn considers desperate and undesirable. She runs away crying as well, offended, and Carolyn’s handsome able-bodied boyfriend Kent must drive her home. Pumpkin is forgotten, and left stranded on the beach alone. Carolyn remembers a few hours later, and returns to retrieve him. Instead of being angry at being treated so shabbily, Pumpkin gives Carolyn a simple drawing of herself, and Carolyn realizes that she’s fascinated with Pumpkin as well. Despite the fact that Pumpkin has barely said three words to her, Carolyn decides that his suffering has made his soul beautiful and pure.
Her sorority is thoroughly upset by her newfound interest in Pumpkin, deeming it unhealthy and unnatural. Associating with a developmentally disabled person is socially acceptable within the context of providing charity or assistance, but an equitable romantic relationship is unthinkable. When the pair decide to sleep together, each family accuses the other of rape. Once word gets out about this, Carolyn is kicked out of her sorority and school, and makes a suicide attempt.
The sorority still thinks their association with the disabled athletes could win them the prize, though, and engineers Carolyn’s return at the sorority ball so she can be seen repudiating her relationship with Pumpkin and dancing with able-bodied Kent instead. Pumpkin and a couple of his disabled friends decide to crash the party, resulting in a fistfight in which he (looking rather more coordinated than ever) manages to defeat Kent. It isn’t that Pumpkin is suddenly stronger or lands more blows than Kent, it’s the humiliation of being bested by a disabled person that Kent can’t handle.
A distraught Kent drives his car off a cliff, becoming physically disabled himself. He’s released from the hospital in record time, with a shiny new motorized wheelchair which his fraternity brothers have to push for some reason. He’s spending all his time in a darkened room, blaming Carolyn for his problems, when Pumpkin visits him at home and encourages him to return to public life. Kent does by becoming the new coach of Pumpkin’s team and giving an inspirational speech at the Challenged Games. Though he’s only recently been disabled and hasn’t even figured out how to work his motorized chair, with his movie-star good looks and muscular physique, Kent is already at the top of the pecking order of people with disabilities. Perhaps this is a glimpse of his future career as a motivational speaker.
In the final scene, the disabled athletes (with nary a genuine disabled actor in evidence) at the Challenged Games bumble about and fall all over themselves for no apparent reason, revealing the prejudices of the writers and filmmakers. It’s as if they believe “challenged athletes” aren’t capable of figuring out how to run. One final facepalm before Carolyn and Pumpkin walk off into the sunset together.