Differently-abled people tend to be portrayed as victims in Hollywood films. Filmmakers take their best stab at what they assume is an accurate and sensitive representation of conditions like autism or Down syndrome; the result is often condescending and offensive. The saint-like, differently-abled folks ultimately allow themselves to be led to their destiny, be it Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Rabbit in Rain Man, Sean Penn’s Sam Dawson in I Am Sam, or Juliette Lewis’s Carla Tate in The Other Sister. Unsurprisingly, those also tend to be award-magnet performances, for what a colossal feat of acting it must be, to get into the mind of a “mentally challenged” person!
Ben Reid’s short crime drama Innocence may just break that unfortunate trend. At the very least, it stands as a rare example of a film that treats its differently-abled protagonist, well, normally. For one thing, it boasts a terrific lead performance from Tommy Jessop, an actor with Down syndrome. Reid also showcases the fact that, if anything, people with Down syndrome are more attuned to their emotions and are generally more capable than the rest of us.
“…primarily functions as a sharp, gripping, controversial treatise on the way differently abled people are treated.”
The plot may not break new ground but is intriguing enough to lure us with its central mystery – expertly so, considering the 20-minute runtime. When Mike (Richard Glover) is found murdered outside of a care home, detective sergeant Elizabeth Noble (a stoic Alice Lowe) questions the primary suspect, Dylan (Jessop), who allegedly assaulted the victim hours before his death. She ends up uncovering a horrific crime, perpetrated by Mike, and solving the murder – or so she thinks.
While the twisty plot may hold your attention, Innocence primarily functions as a sharp, gripping, controversial treatise on the way differently-abled people are treated. Through the eyes of his repressed protagonist, Reid disdainfully views such disregard – yet Dylan is far from a passive observer. He does something about it. Jessop, along with Lowe, Spellman, and Ben Whitley regular Richard Glover, form the thumping heart of this project.
Another recent film that broke the trend was Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s touching The Peanut Butter Falcon, which just happened to have a differently-abled person as its lead. Perhaps filmmakers are finally opening their eyes and seeking authenticity as opposed to force-emulating it.
"…through the eyes of his repressed protagonist, Reid disdainfully views such disregard"