I must confess that I nearly set aside writer/director Nicholas Connor's award-winning short film Cotton Wool when I saw the dreaded phrase "wheelchair-bound" used in his introductory e-mail. A disabling phrase if ever there was one, "wheelchair-bound" is fortunately not a phrase that dominates the cinematic landscape of Cotton Wool, an occasionally misguided but well-meaning and incredibly important short film centered around a single mother, Rachel (Leanne Best, Star Wars, Black Mirror), who experiences a debilitating stroke and with no one to care for her when released home becomes reliant upon a teenage daughter, Jennifer (Katherine Quinn), and her seven-year-old son Sam (Max Vento, The A Word).
In many ways an indictment of the society and healthcare system that would allow for such a thing, Cotton Wool tells a story not far removed from that of 243,000 child carers under the age of 19 in England/Wales and 22,000 under the age of nine.
If that doesn't frighten you, it should.
Recipient of 45 awards globally and having screened at 27 film festivals, Cotton Wool is an intelligent and emotionally resonant short film that benefits greatly from the fine performances of its ensemble cast led by Leanne Best's heartbreaking, remarkable turn as Rachel. The scene in which Rachel experiences her stroke is harrowing, her desperation radiating outwardly on her now frozen, wordless face struggling to identify what's going on as her terrified child Sam, played with tremendous vulnerability by Max Vento, obviously knows that something is wrong but hasn't a clue what he's supposed to do and screams at his mother to "stop being a monster" while simultaneously trying to get the attention of his oft-distracted sister.
It is Katherine Quinn's Jennifer who's given the most range to play here, initially a distracted and self-absorbed teen whose grumpiness is felt early on and whose desire for a return to normalcy initially involves a hands-off approach to her mother's woes. As one might expect, she'll get her redemption though in some ways that's more than a little aggravating given the last thing we should ever call such a situation is "normal."
I must confess that I longed for a bit more of a feisty attitude amidst the film's story, though Connor makes it clear in the film's closing credits that his goal was to pay tribute to the many carers whose loyalty and love often go unnoticed. The film doesn't really tackle the ways in which the situation further disabled Rachel, from the obvious role reversal of the obvious scenario to the simple ways in which Rachel is expected to simply say "thank you" to anyone who does anything for her without much regard to what she actually wants done.
As a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida myself, I'll openly confess that certain scenes that some would find heartwarming I found a wee bit more troubling. Overall, however, I still had a tremendous appreciation for Cotton Wool and for the film's spot-on performances.
The original score by Benjamin Squires is an absolute winner, capturing both the film's dramatic highs and emotional depths. Kudos, as well, must be given for the realistic ways in which experiencing a stroke and recovering from it are portrayed.
Minor issues aside, Cotton Wool is an engaging 38-minute short and it's not surprising to see its slew of awards. For more information on the film, visit its official IMDB page linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic