Where Hope Grows

Where Hope Grows is meant to be an inspirational religious story about the unlikely friendship between a young man with Down Syndrome and Calvin, an alcoholic ex-baseball player with an anxiety disorder, but suffers from a hamhanded one-dimensional portrayal of people with Down Syndrome as a result.

The young man, nicknamed Produce after the department of the grocery store he works in, is never given a real name in the story. Presumably he is rightfully proud of his job and the spiffy apron and nametag that come with it, but it would be considered socially unacceptable to refer to a non-disabled adult by his job description outside of work. (It would also be unacceptable to smash up perfectly good fruits and vegetables in the back lot behind the grocery store where you work, but no one stops Calvin and Produce from doing just that.)

Details about Produce’s life are sparse as well; we eventually learn that his mother has died, but not whether he lives alone, with remaining family, or in a group home. Produce’s entire function in the story is to provide inspiration and guidance for Calvin, both in the form of his reliance on his “book” (the Bible, of course), and his unshakable happiness. Calvin even explicitly refers to Produce as a “magical kid”, voicing a common stereotype about people with Down Syndrome being supernaturally happy all the time.

But even what might be considered a positive stereotype about disability can be harmful, as it creates unrealistic expectations and devalues individuality. The fact is, not all people with Down Syndrome are relentlessly happy, and not all want to be hugged. (Some don’t like to be touched at all.) People with Down Syndrome are capable of experiencing the full range of emotional responses, and often suffer from depression. (One wonders how many people with Down Syndrome have had trouble getting treatment for it, if the stereotype about them is that they’re incapable of being depressed in the first place.)

One good thing about Where Hope Grows, though; they cast David DeSanctis, an actor with Down Syndrome and one of the first to play a leading role in a full-length English language feature film. DeSanctis ably demonstrated that people with intellectual disabilities can carry a major role, better than any non-disabled actor trying to ape disability. We look forward to seeing more disabled actors in general, and DeSanctis in particular, in the future.

Letters to Father Jacob (Postia Pappi Jaakobille)

Short but intense, Letters to Father Jacob explores two souls in transformation; one a murderer who has just received an unexpected pardon, the other an elderly blind priest fearing the end of his usefulness. With nowhere to go after a 12 year stint in prison without any family visits or support, Leila accepts the written job offer from one Father Jacob, an elderly blind priest who lives in a ramshackle house in the countryside.

Their first meeting is fraught with tension; Leila doesn’t know what her duties are, how to deal with a blind man, or even how to hold a cursory conversation. Childishly wondering if he’s really blind, she waves a kitchen knife in front of his eyes to see if he’ll react.

Leila wonders if Father Jacob is really blind

Is that a dagger I see before me?

Blind priests are nothing new; there are blind priests currently practicing in various parts of the world today. The Catholic Church has an official accommodation for the disability of a blind or partially sighted priest which allows him to say slightly modified Masses, exempts him from saying certain Holy Week masses, (perhaps because of the extra rituals and deviation from the standard form they involve?) and requires that he have an assistant if his blindness is far advanced.

Father Jacob has apparently been blind for a while now, as he speaks of having people read verses from the Bible for him to memorize as a young priest. Having gained a reputation as something of a mystic, Father Jacob has been receiving requests for prayers and intercession through the mail from all over Finland. His blindness prevents him from reading them independently, though he manages most tasks around the house fairly well. Leila’s duties entail little more than taking care of his dwindling correspondence, but she does not want to be bothered; she tosses most of his letters into the well and lies about them having no return address. Father Jacob can see right through the lies, though, and gently informs her of this.

At times Leila seems on the verge of stealing Father Jacob’s money and bolting, but wavers whenever she realizes she has nowhere to go. She starts to believe in Father Jacob’s heartfelt devotion to his epistolary flock, until the flow of letters suddenly dries up, triggering a crisis of the faith for Father Jacob. He insists on visiting a nearby church for some imaginary service in his pajamas, with Leila trailing behind.

Leila realizes that Father Jacob arranged for her pardon simply because he wanted a soul to save, and defiantly strands him in the church. Returning to his home, she takes some of his money and calls for a cab, but freezes when the cabdriver asks her what address to go to.

Leila considers–and almost carries out–suicide when Father Jacob returns home on his own.

On the postman’s next visit, Leila decides to make a change in her life, and compassionately begins to invent letters for the old priest to pray over. When he isn’t fooled, she breaks down and asks forgiveness for the murder she committed. (Which, of course, turns out to be justifiable homicide… God may forgive all sins, but movie audiences do not.) Father Jacob produces a letter from one of his frequent correspondents that offers her redemption and a path to a new life. And then, like all good disabled characters who have inspired the able-bodied to lead good lives, he immediately dies in his long johns.