I will confess that I found myself struggling at times with the well intended but occasionally tone deaf approach taken by The R-Word, a feature-length documentary from Amanda Lukoff that finds its foundation in Lukoff's warm, loving relationship with her sister Gabrielle, who has Down Syndrome.
The film itself is a purposeful look into the long-reaching history and lasting implications of "the r word," or "retarded," along with a somewhat jarring glimpse into current attitudes and perceptions about people who have intellectual/developmental disabilties. The R-Word grounds itself within the personal narratives of four sibling stories along with first-person accounts of self-advocates, creating an often intimate and revealing perspective of both the obstacles for and triumphs of people who are living, often quite successfully, with an intellectual disability.
The R-Word is at its best and most heartwarming when it rests itself squarely in the hands of its four sibling pairs, all of whom are simultaneously engaging and insightful in mostly hopeful and often quite humorous ways.
There are other times, however, that The R-Word struggles to achieve the right tone to get its definitely needed and valuable message across - essentially, that both words and attitudes matter. While some will consider The R-Word's approach unflinching and blunt, I couldn't help but occasionally feel like the film crossed that line into exploiting "the r word" in order to not exploit "the r word." I mean, sure, I get it. It's difficult, maybe impossible, to make a film about "the r word" without actually using the word itself.
I get it. Understand it. I'm down with it.
I can sum it up like this. I'm a few hours after having watched The R-Word, a film that is, at its very core, about NOT using "the r-word" in our daily language.
You want to know what I remember about the film? You guessed it. The R-Word. I remember the multiple times, more than multiple times, that The R-Word felt the need to use "the r-word" to get across the idea that "the r-word" shouldn't be used.
That's an awful lot of r-words.
What I was hoping for from watching The R-Word was a film that balanced an acknowledgement of the ways in which using "the r-word" hurts individuals and society with vivid reminders that "the r-word" fails to capture the fullness of the human beings targeted by the word and, perhaps, a proactive journey toward creating a more positive, person-centered language.
The R-Word almost gets there, in fact it often gets there when it's centered squarely within the lives of these siblings. It falls short when it leans in to pop culture and contemporary society.
This is not to say that The R-Word is a bad film. It's most certainly not, though it's likely a film more targeting disability aware rather than disability immersed audiences. Having screened at such fests as ReelAbilities New York, National Down Syndrome Congress Film Fest, SXSW EDU, and this week's ReelAbilities Pittsburgh, The R-Word is obviously a film that resonates within the disability and one can't, and definitely shouldn't, easily dismiss that embrace simply because of a few issues with cinematic tone and modest technical concerns like an abundance of talking head close-ups that make some of the interviews lack the warmth and intimacy that could have really allowed them to soar.
Yet, there's a strength and undeniable power to The R-Word that can't be ignored. It's a film that makes a difficult subject accessible to talk about in a way that's non-threatening, even entertaining, and it does so with its message firmly intact. Utilizing the lives of these four siblings, The R-Word succeeds in humanizing "the r-word" and in vividly portraying the idea that this word which society uses so freely and frivolously is a word that has come to be harmful to an entire population of people and those who love and care about them.
In essence, The R-Word succeeds in its fundamental goal - teaching that words do, indeed matter, and so do our attitudes about those with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their presence in the world around us. As the federal government continues to push for greater community integration, this is something of vital importance and The R-Word captures that beautifully.
The R-Word is screening as part of this week's ReelAbilities Pittsburgh. For more information on the film, be sure to visit its official website linked to in the credits. For information on ReelAbilities Pittsburgh, visit the ReelAbilities Pittsburgh website.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic