Sundance 2016: ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’ balances sweetness with biting black humor

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The Fundamentals of Caring


 

The Fundamentals of Caring
Directed by Rob Burnett
Written by Rob Burnett, based on the novel by Jonathan Evison
USA, 2016

The Fundamentals of Caring is a therapeutic film designed to elicit feel-good moments while we follow a new caregiver Ben (Paul Rudd) as he starts to work with a teenager with muscular dystrophy. Trevor (Craig Roberts of Submarine and Amazon’s Red Oaks TV series) is confined to a wheelchair and will have a limited life span. Instead of taking advantage of the little time he has, he eats the same meals, watches the same TV, and has never traveled too far beyond his house. The writing is sharp and best when it’s mean. Suffering from an overly long title, The Fundamentals of Caring knows how sickly sweet it is, but rightly tends to balance it out with black humor.

Paul Rudd is as amiable as ever, but wisely quiet for the first half of the film, as we ease into how Ben and Trevor get along with each other. A former writer, Ben is recovering from a traumatic life event, and needs something grounding in his life. Their friendship escalates into a series of lovingly hostile interactions that push them out of the comfortable but fearful existences they’re eking out. A road trip is cautiously planned to visit America’s cheesiest and weirdest landmarks leading up to a final destination- the deepest pit in the country. There is an overt sentimentality to all of the plot, but it’s buoyed by the snappy performances. Roberts in particular adds a nice bite to his lines and knows how to generate empathy without pity. Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) is a little too forceful and underused in her part as Trevor’s mother, but fulfills her character with a sense of protectiveness that a lesser actress couldn’t achieve. Ehle and Roberts obviously originating from the United Kingdom is not ignored but casually worked into the story without any awkwardness. Selena Gomez as a hitch-hiking runaway named Dot is playful and much better in this than her disastrous bit part in the otherwise tremendous but little seen Rudderless.

Thankfully, this comedy aims beyond raunchiness to something a bit more tonally mature. It respects women even as it posits them as pseudo-antagonists. Trevor’s mother is loving but controlling and threatens to stop the road trip. Ben’s estranged wife is desperately trying to serve him with divorce papers. These aren’t troubling portrayals but serve as a catalyst for the male-bonding that the two embark on. There is still a great deal of looking at women- particularly a woman travel reporter on TV and Dot. There’s a visual romanticization of these girls that goes along with how removed Trevor is from normal physical life. When we meet Dot for the second time, the camera lingers on her for quite some time while Trevor stares and Leonard Cohen’s passionate “I’m Your Man” plays. This smartly redirects the looking behavior back to Trevor, implying that he would do anything to be with her if he could. While Dot’s body is a passive object, so is Trevor’s for his lack of courage. It’s not exactly progressive, but the choice means more than a song that would have more explicitly dissected her looks. The masculine atmosphere isn’t overpowering but in fact makes plenty of room for women and their problems on their trip. A pregnant woman named Peaches (Megan Ferguson) adds a lively spark of family and connectedness to the whole affair with her small voice and urgently-acted needs.

Aside from some issues with overhead CGI shots of the deepest pit going on a bit too long and the belabored employment of slow-motion flashbacks, The Fundamentals of Caring is an entertaining tearjerker that uses sarcasm to win over the audience. It turns a dark situation on itself and circumvents most cutesy clichés to find real moments of companionship between people who have seen each other at their worst and still care- and not because they have to.

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