I first encountered actor Connor Long following his appearance in one of my favorite films of 2016, Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog. Since that time, Long and I have enjoyed an occasional dialogue mostly via our mutual social media channels. An up-and-coming actor with Down Syndrome, Long may not yet be a household name but is making quite the name for himself with a growing list of credits in a variety of film genres and for his willingness to be a visible and outspoken advocate for actors and other film professionals with disabilities.
He's absolutely perfect for a film like Learning to Drive, a 28-minute short film written and directed by Roderick E. Stevens centering around two brothers, Michael (Long) and Red (Kevin Coubal), whose mother has just died of cancer and who are now left alone with just themselves and a rather alarming jeep called Bruce. We learn early on the film that driving has long held a fascination for Michael, played as a young boy by Caleb Dykstra, and it's a dream that's not going to die just because he's now left with a brother who feels responsible but isn't really all that responsible.
Determined to deliver their mother's ashes to the Grand Canyon, Michael and Red head off on a road trip that goes mostly familiar places but is a delightful journey anyway thanks to the easy, lighthearted camaraderie between Long and Coubal and Stevens' script that looks upward for its disability storyline rather than the usual condescending downward spiral filled with stereotypes and cutesy greeting card drivel.
Learning to Drive has already picked up some awards early in its festival run including an Award of Merit from the Best Shorts Competition, an Award of Excellence for Best Loose Short from the Depth of Field International Film Festival Competition, and multiple prizes from the Southern Shorts Awards including nods for Long, Roderick E. Stevens Jr.'s music, the lensing of Danny Gonzalez and both editing and screenwriting prizes for Stevens. It's clear that the team behind Learning to Drive intends it to have both a long festival life and a strong presence as a teaching tool as they've already put together packaging to license the film to schools, non-profits, universities, libraries and in other locations and at prices that are remarkably reasonable and allow one to truly support the filmmakers.
As a film critic with multiple lifelong disabilities (spina bifida, hydrocephalus, scoliosis, paraplegia AND a double amputee for 20+ years), how disability is portrayed on the big screen matters to me. While Learning to Drive is for the most part a "feel good" type of film, it's not "feel good" at the expense of Michael's dignity or in a way that lessens his individuality. Kudos to both Stevens and Long for getting both disability and ability right here - there's a phrase that's commonly heard among disabled arts folks that goes "Nothing about us, without us." Indeed, it's clear that Learning to Drive has been a collaborative effort that isn't afraid to show common traits among those with Down Syndrome, such as self-talk, but also doesn't present anything in a stereotyped manner. Stevens has also tapped into his own personal experiences as he reportedly has a brother with Down Syndrome and such a personal relationship may help to explain the broad yet sincere relational quality that unfolds over the course of Learning to Drive's 28 minutes.
Long's a gem here, his comic timing fully intact and his ability to convey that longing for independence feeling honest and infinitely relatable. While it's hard not to focus much of the attention on Long, Coubal must be given kudos for his funny yet sincere turn as Red, whom we suspect early on in the film isn't particularly great at caring for himself and is likely in way over his head in trying to support Michael. Coubal's ability to project vulnerability hints at what may be the film's greatest strength - the mutual relationship between the two brothers as both are full-on individuals with strengths and weaknesses. In industry lingo, they are basically "natural supports" to one another.
There's no denying that Learning to Drive gets a little caricaturish at times with its lesser developed characters, though Stevens has edited the film in such a way that it never goes overboard. The film's modest budget occasionally reveals itself in the ambitious project, though the film's heart and intelligence always shine through. Kudos must also be given for the top notch original music from Roderick E. Stevens, Jr., music that vibes perfectly with the film's rural setting and reminded me just a bit of last year's Hell or High Water music.
For more information on Learning to Drive, visit the film's website linked to in the credits to the left of this review. If it arrives at a festival near you, definitely check it out or, better yet, support the filmmakers by arranging a screening for your school, non-profit, church or organization.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic