Silver Bullet

Based on Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, 1985’s Silver Bullet imagines a young boy living with paralysis in a small Maine town being terrorized by a werewolf. Though it’s hardly the first time a horror movie has had a disabled character as its protagonist, they don’t usually come with souped-up wheelchairs as accessories. Marty rides around in an old chrome transport wheelchair indoors, but for outdoors his hard-drinking Uncle Red has tricked out a similar folding wheelchair with handlebars on the side containing the throttle for a gas-powered external motor. A license plate on the back reads “Silver Bullet”, covering a box that looks suspiciously like a battery case, though Marty must conspicuously run out of gas a couple of times to further the plot. (And endure “check the oil” jokes from the local gas station attendant. You can tell Stephen King isn’t terribly familiar with wheelchair users, because Marty reacts as if he’s never heard that joke before.)

Marty’s older sister considers him a burden and resents having some of his care thrust upon her, though the majority of the caregiving seems to be done by his overprotective mother. It seems to be Uncle Red who treats him like everybody else, telling him dirty jokes and teaching him to play cards to the chagrin of his mother. Red presents Marty with an even snazzier Silver Bullet rebuild one summer day, this one more closely resembling a motorcycle.

Corey Haim as Marty riding the Silver Bullet

Corey Haim as Marty riding the Silver Bullet

Eager to try out his new wheels, Marty climbs down the trellis outside his bedroom window on the night of July 4th to set off some illicit fireworks on a remote wooden bridge, where Marty first encounters the werewolf. He has the presence of mind to shoot a rocket into its eye, enabling his sister to identify the local reverend as the culprit when he suddenly starts sporting an eyepatch the next day.

Marty attempts to enlist the aid of the local police, but (as the book explains) the adults in his life decide he must have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is making up fantastical stories to cope with it. (In the book, Marty is then shipped off to live in Vermont to “recuperate”.) After another werewolf encounter in a barn (where the Silver Bullet runs out of gas again), Marty begins writing anonymous letters to the reverend, urging him to kill himself. This, plus the inherent bloodlust that comes with being a werewolf, slowly drives the reverend insane.

The werewolf attacks again on Halloween, first knocking out Uncle Red and then turning on the children. Marty stops him with the other kind of silver bullet, which not only removes the menace from the town but enables his sister to see him in a different light.

Wheelchair-accessible motorcycles are no longer the stuff of fiction; called “wheelchair tricycles”, they are available for purchase from several different companies. Several models even allow use without transferring from your chair.

Like Stars On Earth (Taare Zameen Par)

Warning: The fast-moving blinking introductory sequence to this picture could trigger seizures or otherwise pose a problem for those with sensory issues.

Like Stars on Earth is ostensibly about a small boy from India named Ishaan who has dyslexia, but from what is initially portrayed, he seems to have a larger problem with a wandering mind and very intense daydreaming, both in and out of class. However, this makes him a gifted artist, who is well above his age group in what he can draw and imagine. The movie says that he is 8 years old, but he actually looks much smaller than an eight-year old. While his older brother brags to his parents of his high marks, Ishaan tosses his test papers to the dogs, and tries to avoid talking about school.

It is perhaps the structure and restrictions of the normal expectations of the school system that rub him the wrong way, because one day, after having been punished by being sent by the teacher to stand in the hallway, he goes AWOL and wanders the streets, savoring the exciting sights of tourist-film India. He appears to be somewhat hyperactive. If his parents attempted to have him tested, it may be that he never sat still long enough to get a diagnosis.

Everyone in Ishaan’s life complains about him, from the school bus driver, because he is constantly late and must be bodily pulled away from whatever he is doing when it is time to take the bus; to the teachers who see sub-par schoolwork and bad behavior, to the neighborhood kids who have no love for him because of his bad aim with a ball.

Things come to a head when he is busted by his parents for having forged an absence note to account for that day out of school. They have a meeting with his teachers and it is revealed that Ishaan is repeating the third grade, and his teachers tell his parents that there’s been no improvement the second time around. They suggest Ishaan’s parents send him to a “special school”, but Ishaan’s father believes that it is the class size of 60 and a perceived “lack of discipline” that has led to Ishaan’s academic failure. So he makes good on his repeated threat to send Ishaan to boarding school, where the teachers attempt to cure his wandering attention by rapping his hands with a ruler, his problems seeing letters “dancing” in front of him on book pages and blackboards and his academic failures continue.

Ishaan is clearly depressed by the above by the time the school gets a new art teacher, who makes a dramatic entrance with a song-and-dance routine, playing a flute and wearing a clown suit. (This movie has several Bollywood-inspired mini-music videos effectively portraying certain situations and emotions in compressed amounts of time. They are very well done and a bit more restrained than in some movies meant strictly for East Indian consumption. The DVD has a separate section of them so they can be played independently of the movie.)

The new, youngish, enthusiastic teacher brings with him a wave of fresh air and happiness which is apparent to all, but doesn’t immediately sweep over Ishaan. The new, youngish, enthusiastic teacher (who also teaches at one of those so-called “special schools”) must first discover that Ishaan has dyslexia, and tell his parents and the other teachers, and embark upon a program of academic remediation for Ishaan and consciousness-raising for his classmates.

Superteacher will in time also reveal that he, too, has dyslexia, of course. (“Special Ed kid makes good by growing up to be Special Ed teacher” is the theme of any number of children’s books and college essays in the US.)

I love where he tells Ishaan’s father that in the Solomon Islands, villagers don’t chop down a tree when they want to clear land, but curse and hurl abuses at it, and the tree withers and dies soon after. My mother, a Special Ed teacher in a US-based special school, said “I would get fired if I were to talk to a parent like that”. This picture is a revealing look at middle class life in India, the importance placed by the striving middle class of India on school performance, and the school system in India, which, as it turns out has “Education for All” legislation on the books similar to Special Education laws which came into existence in the US during the 1970s, but which more often than not fail to be implemented on the school level in India.

One bright spot in Ishaan’s boarding school experience is that he makes friends with Raju, a boy with heavy, old-style braces on his legs who recognizes his intelligence, and (fulfilling the stereotype about disabled kids) is more observant and accepting than the other kids in the class.

Ishaan is seen having letters traced into his forearm, writing abcs in a sand tray, molding letters out of clay. Whatever problems he may have been having in Hindi (a language formally studied in school and spoken in class by some of the teachers) are not portrayed in this movie, just notebooks with backwards letters and misspelled words in English. Math concepts were given in an interesting fashion: the teacher had Ishaan ascend higher steps on an outdoor stairway to instill the concept of increasing numbers by multiplication. (What to do for a kid with both dyslexia and mobility impairments, if such a kid exists?) While all of these tactile measures portrayed may contribute to “rewiring” a dyslexic child’s brain, and are recognized techniques in special education, the idea that a kid will inevitably experience a shining improvement soon thereafter may not be realistic. The evidence of his inevitable improvement is portrayed as better English writing and his demonstrated ability to read a poster announcing a school-wide art contest and sound out a complex, multi-syllabic word.

Ondine

Ondine starts out with a fisherman (with the oddly un-Irish name of Syracuse) who plies his trade with a small boat off the coast of Ireland. Him and his fishing boat are necessary elements to the story, because the tale starts when he pulls up a beautiful young woman wearing a bedraggled gray dress in his net. Initially thinking that she’s dead, he at first thinks of reporting his unusual catch to the authorities, but she turns out to be alive but unconscious, and she quickly revives after he gives her CPR. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want contact with anyone else, and being a fisherman in a remote area, who is lucky enough to have inherited a house from his mother near his fishing grounds, he is initially able to accommodate her wish to hide from the world.

He tells only one person about this unusual occurrence: his young daughter, who suffers from kidney failure and uses a wheelchair, had no book to pass the time during a dialysis appointment; to entertain her he tells her about the strange woman he fished from the sea, claiming that this story is a self-created fairy tale. Having just learned about the Scottish folkloric creature, the Selkie, she comes to the conclusion that this woman has to be a Selkie.

When she meets the woman and finds out that she is more than a fairytale, she starts reading up on Selkies and asking the woman questions. The woman gives her name as “Ondine” (implying that she is indeed a water spirit of some sort), and eventually acknowledges some Selkie characteristics and behavior as the movie goes on. Though the woman initially denies it, the girl and later others in the small town start seeing evidence to support the theory that she is a Selkie.

Most convincingly, when Ondine goes out on the fishing boat with Syracuse and sings, his lobster pots and trawling nets become strangely full. Her attempt to conceal something is taken to be an attempt at “burying her seal coat”, and the appearance of a strange and hostile man who wants to force her to go away with him though she wants to stay with Syracuse and is fast establishing a relationship with him is credited to the folklore concerning “the Selkie husband”. The viewer is left to wonder if she is indeed a Selkie or something similar.

While this movie does use the traditional imagery of the cute little disabled kid in the cute little wheelchair heroically enduring repeated dialysis treatments and patiently waiting for a donor kidney, and indulges in the further unreality of making the girl able to walk for some distance when her new motorized wheelchair becomes temporarily disabled after some able-bodied kids ride it into a big puddle, it is more realistic about physical disabilities and the lives of kids who have them than most other pictures involving a disabled juvenile character. This is perhaps because it is not, strictly speaking, a film about a disabled kid, but rather, a film containing a kid who happens to have some unnamed condition that involves kidney failure and the use of a wheelchair in wheelchair-unfriendly small-town Ireland. The first scene depicting the girl in a manual wheelchair shows us that her father routinely rides her straight over high curbs and cobblestones, and carries her into the car, up stairs, etc. Neither wheelchair ramps nor elevators are anywhere in evidence, those in the know are well aware that she can’t be carried like that forever. The girl somehow goes to school and to the local library, apparently others (her mother and stepfather) carry and chauffeur her as well. Nobody seems to have a van with a wheelchair lift; when Anna gets her power chair, she has to drive herself alongside her father’s car to get home. Though she has a normal pre-teen’s preoccupations, such as watching rock groups on TV and curiosity about the budding relationship between Ondine and her father, her life comes with some unusual risks built in: her stepfather looms as a menacing presence whose conduct and contact with her looks suspiciously on the verge of improper and abusive; her biological father got sober only because he realized someone had to be in order to properly fulfill parental responsibilities to her; his fall off the wagon threatens Anna as well as himself.

Ironically, it was an evening at the pub for her mother and stepfather in which both get inebriated and her mother rode in Anna’s power wheelchair which leads to the death of Anna’s stepfather in an unexpected car crash. He turns out to have a donor card and to be a perfect match for a kidney for the girl. This good luck-bad luck situation is attributed to the wish-granting power of the Selkie after the girl had asked the woman to make her better. Unlike in a lot of movies with a disabled character, the wish articulated by the little disabled girl, “make me better”, did not mean “remove the need for a wheelchair” but rather the life-threatening crisis of the kidney failure.

The true identity of “Ondine” remains a mystery until near the end of the movie when a less supernatural theory of how she came to be where and what she is comes to be revealed. We come to realize that Anna has created a bit of a fantasy for herself in order to cope with the tremendous stresses of her illness instead.