SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Kristen Abate and Steven Tanenbaum’s feature, Straighten Up and Fly Right, puts us right in the shoes of a person with a disability and her search for friendship, love, and meaning in life.
Kristen (Kristen Abate) is a twenty-something woman living in New York City battling Ankylosing Spondylitis — a severe form of arthritis that leaves her permanently bent over. Each day, she walks dogs for money, buys various drugs from her dealer, and occasionally pays him to have sex with her. We hear Kristen’s inner thoughts of shame and emotional self-flagellation throughout the film in voiceover.
Kristen’s life takes a step towards the better when one of her clients shows interest in her writing and invites her to a party. Later, she takes on a new client, Steven (Steven Tanenbaum), who has a milder yet similar condition. The two strike up a stormy friendship, and Steven encourages her to pursue her writing. But once the sun starts to pierce the clouds, another storm brews behind it.
If there’s one flaw in Straighten Up and Fly Right, it follows the standard storytelling outline of rising action, climax, and catharsis to a fault. The story structure is about as textbook as you can get, but considering the filmmakers are new, emerging filmmakers, they effectively use the structure.
“…a twenty-something woman living in New York City battling Ankylosing Spondylitis…”
That said, if there was ever a film that made you feel a small percentage of what it’s like living with a disability, it’s this one. The camera is right up in Kristen’s face, and we’re here to experience her day-to-day pain and struggle. First, while walking dogs, she relies on strangers to let her know when it’s safe to cross the street, then she painfully picks up poop, and while walking home, a girl mocks and bullies the way she walks—just for fun.
At the same time, we experience Kristen’s need for love (maybe just a hug), her distrust of friends and strangers, the constant battle for some semblance of self-worth that wages in her head. Empathy is clearly the goal and using basic film and storytelling techniques succeeds in every way.
Kristen’s rocky (understatement) friendship with Steven is the film’s heart. No, they don’t fall in love, but Steven brings his years of life experience and heartbreak, giving Kristen just a glimpse of hope. Abate and Tanenbaum’s performances are spot-on and show great control in building and orchestrating empathy to tell a story.
Straighten Up and Fly Right is touching and poignant. I’m still thinking about how fantastic this story is in portraying living with disabilities.
Straighten Up and Fly Right screened at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…touching and poignant."