You probably know Joey Travolta as the older brother of a certain actor named John Travolta.
You may even know Travolta from his late 70's to early 80's Casablanca Records music career.
Heck, you may even recognize Travolta from his acting days with appearances on Simon & Simon and in such films as Beverly Hills Cop III, Oscar, and Susan's Plan.
The truth is that while Travolta has always lived his life as the less famous Travolta, Joey Travolta has a decades long career as a musician, actor, director, and writer.
Here's the thing. I'm willing to bet you don't really know Joey Travolta.
Married for over 40 years to Wendy Shawn, daughter of comedian Dick Shawn, Travolta's pre-fame life started out with a degree in special education from Paterson State College (now William Paterson University). While you may be thinking to yourself "That's all fine and dandy, but what does that have to do with his Hollywood life," what you may not realize about Travolta is that he's had a long-standing reputation for inclusive filmmaking and authentic representation in cinema, a movement that's gaining steam these days but an objective that has been one of Travolta's since he founded Inclusion Films in 2007 and subsequently released the films Sweet Sixteen, Spud, and Accidents. He has started the HEAL Film Camp with Joey Travolta and now, in 2019, released Inclusion Films' fourth feature film - the holiday-themed Carol of the Bells that picked up the Audience Award at the San Diego International Film Festival and has been picked up by indie distributor High Octane Pictures and released this week on DVD and On Demand.
Made by a cast and crew comprised of 70% individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, Carol of the Bells stars RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) as Scott, a happily married auto body shop owner with a pregnant wife (Yuly Mireles) and a son, Jeremy (Elijah Maximus), who's about to turn five. While life is good, Scott has more than a little baggage as his son nears the age he was when he discovers after his parents are killed in a car crash that he'd been adopted by them. Having lived most of his life in/out of foster homes, Scott eventually recovered but never fully enough to forgive the biological mother he's never met and who left him behind. After an expensive, exhaustive search Scott finally locates his mother, Carol (Andrea F. Friedman, Law & Order: SVU, Family Guy), but, much to his surprise, discovers she has intellectual disabilities.
Carol of the Bells is a sincere film, an obviously low-budget effort with low-key, engaging performances by its ensemble cast and a mixture of familiar Hollywood faces alongside actors with disabilities including Friedman, an actor with Down Syndrome who's been active in Hollywood since the 90s along with a winning appearance by Geri Jewell.
Written by J.C. Peterson, whom The Independent Critic reviewed as an actor in the indie project S&M Sally (Really!), Carol of the Bells is an involving effort about a man who discovers a truth he can't bring himself to accept, the wife who helps him find his way, and the journey that Scott undergoes alongside Carol to let go of the past and live in the present.
Carol of the Bells isn't a groundbreaking film, but it's an entertaining one that refreshingly lives into authentic representation in its casting and amongst its crew members. You'll recognize folks like Donna Mills and even Donna Pescow from that other Travolta's Saturday Night Fever. The entire ensemble cast performs ably, some stronger than others, but all solid enough to keep Peterson's story moving forward and to keep the audience engaged.
Both Friedman and Mireles are the film's highlights and emotional core, embodying the story's heart and convictions convincingly including an emotionally resonant, tear-jerking finale that will definitely click for audiences open to Hallmark Channel-styled sentimentality. While Peterson's script is sentimental, it's not sugar-coated with ample time given to the stereotypes and biases facing folks with intellectual disabilities including the "look away" public stigmas and the hyper-controlling parents as brought to life by Carol's mom (Donna Mills).
David Arkenstone's original music reinforces all the sentimentality it can wring from those notes, while Andy Ryan's lensing is straightforward yet effective throughout.
There's never any doubt where Carol of the Bells is going, though Travolta keeps us entertained enough getting there. Unabashedly sentimental and hopeful, Carol of the Bells is a film about inclusion that lives into its values. It's a surprising release from High Octane Pictures, more often known for its indie horror, but it's a winner and one can only hope they'll search out even more films such as this one.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic