Films with a disabled character are often accused of making the disability the crux of the plot. The disability is the problem that keeps the momentum going, a separate character altogether, overshadowing the actual person with the disability. Netflix’s newest offering, The Fundamentals of Caring, is perhaps no less immune to that criticism – using the main character’s Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) as a mechanism for any action or resolution to occur. However, the comedic storyline and the road trip narrative breathes new life into what is otherwise a formulaic movie.
The story arc is as follows: A newly-trained caregiver avoiding his own baggage lands his first job taking care of a sarcastic, foul-mouthed, agoraphobic, and deeply insecure teenager, Trevor (portrayed by Craig Roberts). After a few initial hurdles, they become friends and set out on a road trip of the most boring places in America (final destination: The World’s Deepest Pit). Solving Trevor’s problems on the road and picking up hitchhikers on the road, including a similarly sarcastic, foul-mouthed teenager (played by Selena Gomez), teaches Ben about life and how he should deal with his own problems. On the surface it seems like a movie we’ve all seen before, an assembled line-up of tried and true tropes that will be sure to charm audiences.
However, this Sundance Film Festival favorite diverges in a number of a key ways. While Ben’s backstory was limited to a heavy-handed, repeating slow-motion flashback of his son dying, rendering him a one-dimensional character in many aspects, Trevor’s character was better nuanced, so we could glimpse at the real Trevor that was heavily armored by his spiky exterior. Ben was never fully explored as a character – after all, we never did find out why he became a caregiver – but perhaps that was intentional to focus on Trevor’s character.
On the surface, Trevor was deeply unlikeable. However, the intimate examination of his life history could lead any astute observer to understand the variable mental issues he was experiencing – from living with the reality of “statistically speaking, 7-10 years of life left,” to his father’s abandonment, the physical limitations of DMD and the ever-revolving door of caregivers, to name a few – that caused him to create defense mechanisms designed to keep everyone except his mother at bay.
It’s normally the domain of indie movies to showcase the complexity of personality and character, and The Fundamentals of Caring was no different. Trevor’s life experiences made him reclusive, averse to change and agoraphobic by choice. The road trip with Ben helped him experience new, seemingly inconsequential things such as eating a Slim Jim. It also showcased his deepest fears.
Part of Trevor’s way of relating to his caregivers and maintaining control was by faking choking, not breathing and loss of consciousness. This dark humor permeated his relationship with Ben, causing Ben to have more than a few anxiety-ridden incidents until he realized Trevor was joking. The deeper insight into Trevor’s psyche came when Ben flipped the situation and pretended to have lost Trevor’s medication somewhere on the road. The ever-present fear Trevor had about his situation was shown in stark clarity as he lashed out at Ben. That is not to say that all of their interactions were about dark humor. Of course, there was a love interest as well.
She came in the form of Selena Gomez’s character, Dot, and was basically an archetype of what every quirky indie female love interest is – outgoing and rebellious with a heart of gold. With Ben’s encouragement, Trevor embarks on a relationship with her that doesn’t really change his outlook. He remains as insecure, foul-mouthed and outwardly unhappy throughout the movie. The lack of development is frustrating but also realistic. There are no easy ways to change in life, and whether or not The Fundamentals of Caring actually set out to draw a bleak picture of self-improvement, the movie succeeded.
Overall, it was a decently made film, interspersed with enough comedy that it could be an easy summer watch. Much kudos to the creators for not creating a martyr or a victim for Trevor’s character, and thereby showcasing the diversity that exists within every population, including those with disabilities. There was a special emphasis on the mental state of Roberts’ character, which helped alleviate some of the murkiness over Ben’s lack of a story arc. The Fundamentals of Caring is more of a comedy than the thought-provoking drama it was originally billed as, but well made enough that it doesn’t seem to matter.