St. Vincent

Though the focus of St. Vincent is the unlikely friendship between an introverted young boy and his Brooklynite neighbor, themes of disability and caregiving are prominent. Though it isn’t revealed until late in the story, Vincent’s wife has dementia, and he’s spent every nickel he has–and then some–attempting to pay for the best of care in an unbelievably posh nursing home that looks more like a hotel. Vincent regularly visits her dressed in a white lab coat, pretending to be her cardiologist, in order not to distress her with the realization that she doesn’t remember him. In the outside world, however, he’s in a relationship of sorts with Duka, a churlish pregnant Russian hooker deserted by her usual clientele.

Vincent suffers a stroke at one point, and though he clearly needs some cognitive and physical therapy, it seems to be provided mainly by his neighbor and her son holding up flash cards and helping him pronounce words. Later he’s seen in a dismal physical therapy room, transferring marbles into a container with his toes with no therapist in evidence. One wonders just how much rehab the Veteran’s Administration provides, and whether it’s really sufficient. Vincent is seen to have trouble controlling his mouth muscles and a limp for the remainder of the film, but Duka takes over housekeeping duties for him.

The neighbor kid and his friend have to give Duka a lesson on polite terminology, because she has no qualms about using the “R-word”, and doesn’t know why it’s not OK to call someone a midget. Yet Duka isn’t completely insensitive to disability issues; she prevents Vincent from parking in a spot reserved for the handicapped until he proudly takes his new placard out of the glove compartment.

Vincent: “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Duka: “Because you have sad life.”

The final minutes of the movie explain the title: the neighbor kid arranges to have Vincent honored on stage at his Catholic school for his service to his country and wife, as part of an assignment to recognize the saintliness of ordinary people around them.

The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)

Mild-mannered and low in status, Iguchi Seibei is given the derogatory nickname The Twilight Samurai by his co-workers for his custom of rushing home in the evenings instead of going out drinking, but he’s too busy taking care of his senile mother and two young daughters to worry about their teasing. His wife has died of tuberculosis and his own health and personal hygiene have suffered from stress and poverty, but Seibei is otherwise happy with his family life.

Though clad in a drab kimono, his mother still retains the elegant bearing of a noble lady, graciously asking what house people belong to when she can’t remember who they are. When she asks it of her brother, he becomes enraged and shouts that she should be tied to a pole and kept hidden away. Seibei’s mother does recognize his childhood friend and love interest Tomoe, though, an indication of how long he’s quietly pined for her.

Seibei also employs an intellectually disabled man,
Naota, as a manservant. How much Naota is paid or otherwise compensated isn’t shown, but he’s trusted to tend the chickens, carry out simple tasks around the house, and remember urgent messages to Tomoe before Seibei must go into battle.

Still Mine

Based on a true story, Still Mine is unusual not for its portrayal of an octogenarian with worsening dementia, but for the focus on her changing housing needs, and her equally elderly husband’s efforts to build her an accessible home. Irene Morrison has been having trouble getting around, and after a fall her husband Craig moves her bed into the living room and installs a Port-a-Potty on the front porch so she won’t have to climb the stairs again. Their children are dismayed at their non-standard living arrangements, though, and vaguely hint that Something Must Be Done About Mom. Craig decides to start building a smaller, one level house with a wheelchair ramp to prepare for the day they can no longer manage in the house he built for them at the beginning of their marriage, and begins construction with timber he’s cut down himself. His kids urge him to get all the necessary permits, though, and thus begins a legal battle spurred on by the urgency of having the house ready by the time Irene recovers from a broken hip.

Ironically, it’s the same sense of rugged independence that keeps most people from buying visitable houses or making renovations for wheelchair access when they’re relatively young; many buy houses with stairs to the entrance, not considering whether they’ll be able to climb them in 30 years. And the need for a wheelchair is often a sudden and unexpected one, requiring extensive renovations just as the medical bills are arriving. Daunted, many feel they have no choice but to move to a nursing home, though the cost of renovations or relocation and personal assistance services is usually cheaper in the long run then extended nursing home care.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

The family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding bring their grandmother to the U.S. from Greece, because they “weren’t weird enough”. Yiayia has trouble adjusting and shows signs of dementia, thinking she’s been brought to a Turkish prison:

Yiayia: [spoken in Greek] Listen up, ugly Turk. You’re not kidnapping me!
[Gus laughs and tries to hug her, but Yiayia suddenly hits him and runs out the door. Maria and Gus chase after her.]
Gus: Mama, please! The Greeks and the Turks friends now!
Toula: [narrating] We told my grandma the war was over, but she still slept with a knife under her pillow.

Yiayia also frequently wanders, and is shown being returned by an annoyed neighbor who warns them “Keep your mother off my lawn, out of my basement, and away from my roof!” Later, Yiayia is seen making a break for it again, but is repelled by strategically placed sprinklers.

It is unclear whether Yiayia realizes there’s a wedding going on or whether she simply finds a box of keepsakes that jolt her memory at a pivotal time, but she helps main character Toula understand the true depths of her family’s investment in the big event.

Though Yiayia’s function in the script is to provide comic and emotional relief, there’s a darkness to her wacky antics. She also serves as an unspoken reminder that many survivors of atrocities who develop dementia suffer from flashbacks and must relive the horrors of war.

The Descendants

Images of disability are rife in The Descendants, from the very beginning with an establishing shot of a Hawaiian woman in a wheelchair, to the story that centers around the last days of a woman in a coma. Having suffered a severe head injury in a boating accident, Elizabeth King has been on life support at the local hospital for several days. Her young daughter Scottie has been coping by taking numerous photographs, arranging them in scrapbooks decorated with heart shapes, and freaking out her classmates with pictures of her mother on a ventilator. This is interpreted by her teachers as disturbing, even aggressive, behavior, though we at Disability Movies are more inclined to see it as a young girl’s way of expressing love for her mother. (In any case, it comes out later that the other children don’t actually believe Scottie’s mother is in a coma despite the copious photographic evidence, and have been entirely unsympathetic as a result.)

When Elizabeth’s doctors break the news that the damage to her brain is too extensive and she must be taken off of life support in accordance with her advance directives, her husband Matt begins the unenviable task of informing friends and relatives who are still putting lipstick on her, hoping she’ll recover. He first collects his wayward daughter Alexandra from what seems to be a cross between a boarding school and residential treatment center. After her hangover wears off and they have a serious talk, it comes out that Elizabeth has been having an affair. Matt must suddenly process a lot of complicated feelings, and needs to get to the bottom of Alex’s story. The two make plans to investigate further, and Alex enlists her smartmouthed boyfriend Sid for psychological support.

The family visits Elizabeth’s parents, to discover Granddad resplendent in compression stockings and Grandma pleasantly senile. Granddad gently tells her that they must visit Elizabeth in the hospital and be there for her one last time, and Grandma thinks they’re going to meet the Queen. Sid opines that “she knows she’s being funny”, and Grandpa coldcocks him. They retreat to the car, where Matt berates Sid and calls him “the r word”. Sid takes offense, claiming he has a brother with intellectual disabilities. Matt regrets his words, but only until Sid laughs and says he was only joking. Matt nearly punches him as well.

The Descendants bucks all manner of traditional portrayals of sick and disabled people; the woman in a coma is neither angel nor demon, and imparts no life lessons before she dies. It is left to her husband and descendants to puzzle out her effect on them.


There aren’t very many feel-good comedies about cancer, but if you gloss over the illness and disability part a bit as in 50/50 you come pretty close. Adam is diagnosed with a rare type of spinal cancer (the more syllables it has, the worse it is) and is promptly prescribed a round of chemotherapy and some new elderly friends with medical marijuana. (Since Adam doesn’t seem to worry about either bankruptcy from medical bills or arrest from medical marijuana, we can only surmise that 50/50 is set in Canada.) Adam considers his mother a Smother (when she’s not busy taking care of his befuddled dad) so turns to his buddies to help him through the crisis. His best friend Kyle makes jokes about his situation and uses it to attract women, but is a true and loyal friend when Adam’s girlfriend can’t handle the stresses of the low-level caregiving (dropping off and picking up Adam from chemo) she’s asked to perform. Reality only intrudes into Rachel’s world occasionally, when Adam pukes in the toilet, but when he finally gets angry enough at her to break up, she wails that he hasn’t considered how hard it is on her.

Though he doesn’t take Rachel back, it suddenly dawns on Adam just how hard it is on his mother taking care of his Dad. He further comes to the realization that she does so out of love, and not letting her take part in his caregiving is effectively shutting her out of her one son’s life (or death, as it may be). When chemo fails, Adam calls on her for support for a dangerous, last-chance surgery. She shows up at the hospital with her husband in tow. Though Adam’s dad doesn’t understand what’s happening or even who Adam is, he still has enough of the long-term memory synapses to know he loves Adam; they hug and both get weepy.

The surgery was a success, though the patient lost part of his pelvis, hip, and the myelin sheath of the nerve in one leg. Adam’s recovery from that must have been painful, expensive, and long, the movie skips ahead to when he’s “walking up a storm”, with better hair, better girlfriend, and better relationships with his mother and best friend.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic of American cinema, and Jack Nicholson’s most well-remembered cinematic role. The movie was based on an earlier theatrical production, and upon the the Ken Kesey novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had been loosely based upon his experiences working as a janitor or orderly in a VA mental hospital in California, where he also volunteered for LSD experiments.
A lesser-known fact is that having been released in 1975, as a cinematic retelling of a story set some 10-20 years earlier, it is an extremely realistic portrayal of what State mental institutions were like until fairly recently, insofar as how the facilities were set up and what the available treatments were.
Nurse Ratched is easily vilified and has become synonymous with representatives of institutionalized cruelty in our age, and McMurphy observes that she likes to “play with a rigged deck”. However, though some of her policies are merely protective of institutional inertia (what can putting the World Series game on the ward’s television hurt?), certain of her actions are an attempt to impose order upon chaos and good habits upon pathology; in many cases, she engaged in such restrictive measures as withholding other patients’ cigarettes in an effort to stem the negative influence upon the other patients on the part of McMurphy, who had started gambling with the other patients and had won much of their existing supply of money and cigarettes. Though the patients possess wishful thinking of winning these items back, if enabled to gamble some more, Ratched holds out no such hopes and is immune to McMurphy’s charisma. She thinks the regimen of the institution, if strictly adhered to, can at least partially “fix” McMurphy and the other patients, but McMurphy’s fellow inmates welcome the excitement and fun McMurphy’s stunts bring into their drab world. In an interview with Dr. Spivey, the chief psychiatrist, Randall Patrick McMurphy admits that the reason he got sent to prison, and subsequently to the mental institution was, “as near as I can figure out, it’s ’cause I, uh, fight and fuck too much”. This movie is as much about the way society deals with such a nonconformist as much as it is about the personal conduct of such an individual himself; as the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the doctors and Nurse Ratched are shown and the workings of the various bureaucracies dealing with McMurphy are put before the audience. The treatment team make the fateful decision to “keep him (McMurphy) on the ward”, rather than exercising the other options available to them of sending McMurphy to another ward with more “disturbed” patients, or, as the head of the hospital wanted, sending him back to the prison work farm, on the grounds that McMurphy wasn’t technically mentally ill, and that therefore he could well be returned to the penal system, rather than remain in the mental health system.

Though the medical and psychiatric knowledge of the time had decided that McMurphy was “not crazy, but he is dangerous”, modern-day audiences view this picture with a different perspective than people did when it was released in the 1970s. These days, folks are likely to ask, upon seeing McMurphy’s provoking manner, if perhaps, he “has ADD”, which, back then, was not considered possible in an adult. Some speculate that he might have been a sociopath. Modern audiences also express shock at what was then a common procedure, and, during the time period referenced by the original book upon which the movie is based, the only game in town, electroshock therapy without anesthesia, which is now banned in the US, being widely considered barbaric and cruel.
At one point when a melee erupts in the ward, and McMurphy and the Chief are among those taken away immediately to get electroshock treatment, ostensibly to calm their agitated, violent states, but actually because it is the prevailing punishment this particular bureaucracy can dispense. While McMurphy and the Chief are sitting on a bench outside the electroshock room, waiting their turn, McMurphy does the chief the small kindness of offering him a stick of gum. Chief thanks McMurphy for the gum, and with surprise, McMurphy notes that the Chief “can talk” and is thus not “deaf and dumb” as he had previously been described by others in the ward. (Chief actually came off more as a catatonic to me). The Chief warns McMurphy about people “working on him” by telling him the tragic story of his own bedevilled and alcoholic father. Nevertheless, McMurphy continues his antics and continues to get himself and others into escalating amounts of trouble.
Though the predominant disability portrayed in this movie is mental illness in various forms and degrees, both by actors and by authentic patients who had roles as “extras”, there is the occasional wheelchair user shown at various times and places in the hospital, and it is not uncommon to see stray manual wheelchairs left unattended, and easily commandeered by the able-bodied. Though the hospital was built well before the ADA became law, and is probably not designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind, the patients’ swimming pool has a concrete ramp on which an older male patient in a wheelchair is gently rolled into the pool, wheelchair and all.
There were no shortage of “acquired disabilties” in the mental institutions of the time: in the past, when electroshock was the predominant form of treatment, and was given in much the same way in real life as it was to Jack Nicholson, it was tacitly acknowledged that some brain damage was part of the deal.
Lobotomies were a common form of treatment in mental institutions in the past, and while dramatic loss of intelligence and personality was not always the direct result of lobotomization, in this movie, an individual who has had a lobotomy is portrayed as a drooling, incontinent zombie, and McMurphy is shown as passive and silent, and no longer “him”, following his lobotomy.