Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs opens to scenes of an urbanized, working-class NYC neighborhood purportedly in the Bronx, but with a lot of scenes filmed in Brooklyn. Puerto Rican flags flutter in the air, old Hispanic men play dominoes at outdoor card tables, and a middle-aged Puerto Ricans woman with dyed dark hair, dark red lipstick, and a low-cut dress walks into a botanica for candles and a love potion. The occult aids to romance are not for herself, she is more or less happily married, but for her young adult son Armando, who is still single. At the botanica, she also picks up Rosa, a girl of similar background and long raven hair, whom she deems to be a suitable match for Armando, and spends a lot of time in the movie trying to throw her in his way. All budding drama of a conventional sort and within a milieu of the Hispanic culture and striving socioeconomic class within which they live (Rosa is going to college for accounting, while Armando works in a Times Square area Manhattan dance studio by day, and his family’s outer-borough restaurant by night).
While his mother initially seems to have a clear agenda as to whom he should settle down with and what future path he should take, Armando has his own ideas about his prospective romantic partner. He has been admiring blonde German-English Mia, an advanced dance student and social partner of his boss at the dance studio.
“Mia and Armando’s worlds are as far apart as you can imagine: she’s from the Upper East Side hailing from a well-to-do family; Armando works at his family’s restaurant in the Puerto Rican section of Bushwick, Brooklyn,” says producer/actor Joey Dedio. However, it takes some time to get into a circumstance where he is alone with her and they can do some romantic dancing. It is shortly after that encounter when Mia, reminded that she had forgotten her scarf, tries to cross the street to get back to the studio and is mowed down by an errant taxicab. It is this tragic accident which provided the entree to the world of the disabled for two able-bodied young people who were seemingly unlikely to have encountered disability issues otherwise (neither one is seen to have friends or relatives in wheelchairs before the fateful incident). This is also how they meet other patients in the hospital also in wheelchairs, who are interesting and compelling, if not realistic characters. A goth girl, a right-winger, and a transexual are among them.
Armando, undoubtably feeling guilty for his role in the accident which led to the spinal cord injury which put Mia in a wheelchair, plays the “good boyfriend” and constantly visits Mia in the hospital, brings her flowers, and suggests that they go to in-hospital actvities together. (The other suitor has conveniently disappeared. It is never said outright, but perhaps he is no longer interested now that Mia is no longer able-bodied. Nevertheless, Armando is.) Mia, still under the influence of situational depression, nixes every activity Armando suggests, including the on-line video he shows her of wheelchair dancing. In order to overcome her reluctance and provide a situation in which they could engage in wheelchair dancing, Armando attempts to organize a wheelchair dancing class at the hospital. He is met by bureaucratic opposition from a white, upper-class hospital administrator, who cited budget concerns and insurance liability, even though Armando said he would volunteer to teach the class for free, and the hospital already plays host to wheelchair basketball in their gymnasium. (Besides wheelchair basketball, there also seems to be a rec room with a public internet-connected computer and an aquatherapy room with an enviable pool)
Downcast, he pours out his troubles to the plump black working-class nurse on duty, who believes in his effort sufficiently to collude with him in getting around the bureaucratic obstacle, and as keeper of a stuffed keychain, enables him to utilize the gym after the wheelchair basketball team have finished. When this insubordination is discovered, as it inevitably would be, she enables the wheelchair dance class to continue by blackmailing Mr. Grinker with the fact that her iPhone contains video footage of him flirting with a blonde at the office Christmas party which would cause even more drama if it were revealed to his wife.
Though his wheelchair dance class initially gets off to a slow start, new life and catchy music are injected into it by one of the patients, a black transsexual who later enlists a group of his/her gay/trans friends to make costumes for the dancers, who later, in the name of drama, end up entering a wheelchair ballroom dancing competition.
There are a couple of instances in the movie pointing out some other practical issues facing people with physical disabilities as well as societal stigma and myth-making. When Armando’s mother first becomes aware that he is seeing Mia, she is inclined to discourage the budding romance not only because she favors Rosa, but because she may well believe some misconceptions about women in wheelchairs. She articulates a few, along the lines of “she can’t make Armando happy”, and (what if) “she can’t have children”.
After having done some Santeria to try to bring Armando and Rosa closer, Armando’s mother eventually changes course and tells Mia the reason for the change of heart is, “I’ve seen the way he looks at you”.
After the accident, Mia’s parents try to get her to move back to the family home, on the grounds they could “have it totally renovated” for wheelchair access (presumably they have unlimited finances). But, cherishing her independence, she wants to return to life in her own apartment. She and Armando return there for a visit: while Armando is willing and able to carry her up multiple flights of stairs to get there, Mia realizes that she cannot live there again: “the cabinets are all too high”, and a number of other things are wheelchair-unfriendly. The goth girl gets stares and questions about her wheelchair from curious children. Wheelchair ballroom dancing, as it turns out, requires an able-bodied partner for each person in a wheelchair, and as one of the participants in Armando’s clandestine class in the hospital said, referring to the isolated and institutionalized character of their lives at that time” where are we going to get one of those?” Armando’s traditional extended Latino family comes to the rescue, and helps bring about some comic relief, as well as a happy ending for all but perhaps the goth girl with the vanity wheelchair.


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.