Saint or S.O.B.?

Rory O'Shea Was Here

There’s an easy way to judge a film about someone with a disability. If the protagonist is portrayed as saint, then it’s probably not worth watching. If he’s depicted as an SOB, then there might be something to it.

Most films about disability, unfortunately, fall into the former category. In movies like I Am Sam, the handicapped are presented as saints-in-the making who miraculously overcome the various obstacles they face. Squarely in the latter category is Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Irish writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot, which brilliantly captured the bitterness that can develop when a person is forced to depend on others to perform even the simplest of tasks

Of course, there are many inspiring stories about disabled people overcoming their handicaps, but too often Hollywood films fail to explore the loneliness and sadness that disability can bring. Fortunately, the title character of Rory O’Shea Was Here–which opens this weekend in select cities–is closer to an SOB than a saint.

Rory O’Shea gets beyond the easy platitudes about people with handicaps. Though occasionally mawkish, the film is a surprisingly honest depiction of two disabled young men and the physical and emotional struggles they face.

When Rory– his hair spiked and streaked blond–is sent to a rehabilitation home, he talks back to the nurses and ridicules his fellow residents. In the room next to him is Michael, a shy young man who suffers from cerebral palsy. Hesitant and immature, Michael is Rory’s opposite, yet they become unlikely friends after Michael discovers that Rory can understand his garbled attempts to speak. Before long they are hitting Dublin’s bars and nightclubs, drinking and flirting with girls.

Michael is closer to the standard Hollywood portrayal of the disabled. Kind and innocent, he is a favorite of the nurses, who have come to care for him as son. When he decides to move into an apartment with Rory, the head nurse (Brenda Fricker) doesn’t want to see him go, and cautions that he may not be ready to live alone. This scene hints at the complex relationship between handicapped people and their caregivers. Nurses and therapists may encourage their patients to strive for independence, but they are often most attached to those who are most dependent upon them. Rory, for example, is the most independent-minded person in the home, yet he is also the least liked.

Pairing Michael and Rory is a wise move, since it allows director Damien O’Donnell to explore the two sides of disability. In Rory we see the anger that can come with dependence. In Michael we see the child-like innocence that people find so attractive about disabled people. Yet O’Donnell doesn’t shy away from exploring what happens when Michael’s innocence bumps up against the messiness of adult life. O’Donnell does a particularly good job depicting Michael’s first awkward attempts at love. Heartbreak is brutal for us all, but all the more so for someone who has spent his life in a cocoon.

James McAvoy plays Rory with the just the right amount of bluster, but he also knows when to quiet things down. The meetings between him and his father, conducted over a few pints of Guinness, are case studies in the emotional reticence of Irish men. McAvoy also keenly understands the roots of his character’s boorish behavior. Rory seems to believe that is he insults enough people, or drinks enough beers, someone will punch him in the face. And that way he’d be just like any other drunk, not someone who deserves special courtesy.

It’s no coincidence that both My Left Foot and Rory O’Shea were made in Ireland. Abortion was banned on the island for many years, so disabled children who may have been aborted in other countries were brought to term there. Disabilities are therefore fairly common, which helps explain why Irish filmmakers are more likely to present a complex view of the handicapped. They have more exposure to them, so they have a less romanticized sense of what their life is like. Despite a few overly sentimental moments, Rory O’Shea Was Here largely avoids the maudlin traps that other films of this genre have fallen into. In a Hollywood season in which disabled characters seem primarily interested in dying, it’s refreshing to watch two young men who want to stick around here a little while longer, even if it’s just for another pint of Guinness.