Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Documentary follows the life of married couple with Down syndrome

Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival:

Alexandra Codina's Monica & David (pictured) is the documentary account of a young couple with Down syndrome--their romance, their marriage, their first year together. At first blush, it sounds like the worst kind of crass exploitation (a kind of nonfiction version of The Other Sister, perhaps). But it adopts exactly the right voice and perspective--one that carefully avoids cutesiness or sympathy, but sees these two (and the people around them) exactly as they are.

We first meet the titular pair on either sides of a phone call during their engagement; there's something just divine about the way David smiles after they hang up the phone. As they story begins, they are both part of an "Adult Life Skills Program" and are given able support by their families--although, interestingly, both children were abandoned by their fathers early in their lives. But their mothers' stories are moving--Monica's mom, loving but slightly type-A, became a successful businesswoman primarily to provide care for her child, and David's mom (a hearty, earthy, good-humored type) similarly struggled but prevailed in raising her son on her own.

The film then follows the couple as they are wed, and as they redefine themselves in that adult relationship ("I have to work for him, he has to work for me," Monica explains). There is a big move, which calls some of their life into question; David gets it into his head that he wants to get a job at a grocery store ("First I'm hearing of it," mutters Monica's mom), and the pair starts to change their old routines for the new ones that they share.

Codina's primary accomplishment is that of access--the director is Monica's cousin, so she manages to be present during key, private moments, and the behavior of the people onscreen feels captured rather than staged (in some kind of a bullshit reality show way). Her camera is present during a heartbreaking scene when Monica writes a letter to her absentee father ("You broke my heart"), and during candid interviews with their family, the difficult questions of actual independence are asked--the elephant in the room for the parents being, of course, the simple question of "what happens when we die?"

Monica & David begins with some astonishing statistics: as recently as 1983, adults with Down syndrome could only be expected to live to the age of 25 years old. They now live into their 60s and older, thanks to medical advances and societal changes. As they do, there will be more and more stories like Monica and David's, and pictures like this one are an important tool in telling those stories. The film definitely has a home movie feel, but that familiarity is vital and valuable. It's a slight but sweet film--not earth-shattering, but still warm and deeply felt.