Intelligent Lives follows three young people: Naieer Shaheed is a high school kid with a panache for art, with hopes to attend college. Micah Feldman is attending Syracuse University, studying for his education degree. Naomie Monplaisir is looking for the job that best suits her.
This might sound like the set-up of the slice-of-contemporary-life American Teen variety, but the movie has another focal point: the struggles and experiences of those living with intellectual disabilities. Naieer, Micah, and Naomie are all working towards their respective dreams. Dan Habib’s well-intentioned documentary follows these three throughout their endeavors, as well as interviews family members, friends, teachers, and experts about the state of services and education provided to those with intellectual disabilities.
Naomie was initially sent to Birch, which touted a high educational curriculum. However, it wound up being more of a daycare, with the teachers telling the students to glue glitter to cardboard instead of teaching, say, arithmetic. When news of this broke it sparked massive outrage and real change in the way people with disabilities were being taught.
Naieer’s school, for example, does not separate him, or others with intellectual disabilities, out of the classroom. Instead, they work with the students to find the approach to learning that best suits individual and ensures that is integrated into their teaching methods. Thus, Naieer’s teacher helps him develop his spatial use of the canvas and color.
“…the struggles and experiences of those living with intellectual disabilities…”
Meanwhile, Micah is living it up in typical college fashion. He is preparing for a party on the weekend, one in which he invited a lady he recently met. His studies are going well, and he becomes entirely independent, from a legal standpoint.
Intelligent Lives, which is narrated by Chris Cooper, also traces the origins of the IQ test and how it became the standard bearer of intelligence for everyone. French psychologists Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon created the Binet-Simon test in 1905. It focused on verbal, but both of them stressed that the analysis was limited in its scope and that intelligence lives on a qualitative spectrum. Audiences are also treated to the United States government’s responses to disabled people throughout several critical points in time; including George H.W. Bush’s historic signing of the American Disabilities Act.
Watching Micah, Naieer, and Naomie’s lives achieve their highest potential is engaging, and Cooper’s voice over adds a lot of heart; his love for his son, Jesse, who had cerebral palsy, comes across every syllable. Sadly, it is all told in a rather flat manner and does not dive deep enough into the personal lives of its subjects for them to feel whole.
Maybe it is the lack of context given about specific topics, that hinders Intelligent Lives from soaring the way it should. After H.W. Bush signed the ADA, the movie then talks about a Supreme Court case that made it “law of the land.” What case this is, who brought it forward, and how it solidified ADA’s status from a legal standpoint is never even broached. Given the movie’s content and goal, this is a badly missed opportunity. I shouldn’t be left with more questions than answers, but there we go.
“…traces the origins of the IQ test and how it became the standard bearer of intelligence…”
Other questions emerge, such as how did Naieer’s parents learn of the school he goes through? Only a handful of such schools exist and their process of discovering that it is the right place for their son would give the movie more of pointed focus. Or take Naomie for example, who is working. She eventually gets an internship at Empire Beauty School, but was that always the goal? Or just a solid place to work that offered her the position? Micah’s story offers the most context, with him eventually getting hired as a teacher’s assistant. But what pushed him into wanting a teaching degree? I feel I know very little about these folks after the 90 minutes, or so, runtime concluded. For all the movie features these three, it never becomes about them.
Dan Habib certainly has noble intentions in mind with Intelligent Lives. The energetic, ambitious young people at its core are a joy and discovering where they wind up is sweet. However, the documentary never goes far enough to explain vital elements in the civil rights advancements for those with disabilities, and the directing style fails to generate forward momentum.
Intelligent Lives (2018)Directed by Dan Habib. Written by Dan Habib, Jody Becker. Starring Chris Cooper, Micah Feldman, Naomie Monpalasir, Naieer Shaheed.
6 Gummi Bears (out of 10)