The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival 2016.
Speaking ill of a film like The Fundamentals of Caring gives off the sensation of what one might imagine roundhouse kicking a particularly cute puppy might feel like. After all, here is a film about a young man living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and the life-affirming lessons learned on his road trip with a sarcastic caregiver who brings with him his own personal traumas. Along the way they meet colorful characters, find love and catharsis, and discover that not even severe physical impediments can truly impede the human will. It’s a film made for, and almost seemingly by, the sort of person who thinks that critics are too critical of movies and wish that more films were just pleasant and nice and lacking in any real conflict or sense of heightened dramatic stakes.
Paul Rudd is the caregiver, Ben, a man desperate for a decent-paying job and in the process of dodging his wife’s process server so that he won’t have to cement his divorce just yet. He ends up finding his way to home caregiving with what appears to be a remarkable lack of medical qualification, and onto a collision course with Trevor (Craig Roberts). Trevor’s DMD has hardly stopped him from growing into a sarcastic, blunt, bitter, and sexually frustrated man whose loving mother (Jennifer Ehle) does her best to take care of him while worrying about the many hours she has to be out of the house to provide for them. This is eased by Trevor’s general lack of interest in doing much of anything outside of lustily fantasizing over cable television hostesses and marking obscure roadside attractions on a map for a trip he doesn’t imagine himself ever taking.
The film’s early scenes establish a chemistry between Rudd and Roberts that proves essential to The Fundamentals of Caring’s watchability, as the film does its damnedest to avoid that at a number of other points throughout. Adapted by director Rob Burnett from Jonathan Evison’s novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, the film’s screenplay traffics in no shortage of predictable and/or utterly grating indie road movie tropes, but there’s an arch lack of typical sentiment to their dynamic that proves the film’s strongest suit, and suggests a more interesting, darker comedy from which the film eases away as it progresses. In the initial interview regarding Ben’s qualifications, Trevor demands to know “Given the opportunity, how would you wipe my ass?” Throughout the film, he occasionally decides to drive Ben into a furious panic by faking the sort of medical emergency that another film about these characters would mine for maximum pathos. Fundamentals sets out to capture a life lived with severe disability that doesn’t talk down to its central character, and it’s better off for it.
Especially when so much surrounding their inevitably growing bond could be gently characterized as cloying. And that’s still something of an understatement. The Fundamentals of Caring doesn’t just send Ben and Trevor on a weeklong road trip, it fills the car with even more quirky characters. One is Dot (Selena Gomez), a young hitchhiker with the same foulmouthed sensibilities as Trevor, who may as well be introduced to the film with a neon outline clearly declaring “eventual romantic interest.” Eventually they also fall in with Peaches (Megan Ferguson), a pregnant military wife with a sweet Middle American drawl. Ye, it’s a motley crew riding in the modified van to the world’s deepest pit, and if you’re unsure of exactly how Peaches in particular fits into the proceedings, just remember the rule of Chekov’s pregnant woman.
The film’s unsentimental approach to disability feels completely at odds with the rest of the film, which piles on the saccharine sweetness to such a point where by the film’s relentlessly positive climax it might begin to rot the teeth. Any dramatic tension the film establishes is washed away in an ocean of what Demolition Man once called “joy-joy feelings,” and not even late revelations about Trevor’s estranged father or exactly why Ben passes his days in a fugue of such sadness amount to much. By the time the film gets around to slipping a lesson or two about DMD into the dialogue, Fundamentals reveals itself as a message movie in the business of warming hearts at the expense of any kind of more honest or meaningful storytelling. It’s true that few movies are this aw-shucks nice these days, and for a short while The Fundamentals of Caring finds ways of retaining that kindness without lapsing into platitudes. But by the time it’s over, the film instead offers a reminder of why most movies, about this topic or otherwise, aren’t so aggressively nice.