In several (ok MOST) of my previous posts I’ve poked fun at Hollywood filmmakers for doing such a shoddy job of portraying Tourette’s Syndrome and, to a lesser degree, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To be fair there have been films that got it right, most notably Front of the Class. (Obvious reason: the author of the autobiographical book the movie was based on has TS!) But the vast majority of the films coming out of Hollywood just… miss the point.
But now I have to add another to the list of films that got it right: The Road Within.
I toyed with titling this post, “Why I Should Stop Making Fun Of Hollywood”, but it seemed a little too long. Even so, the sentiment is true. Obviously there are filmmakers who can and do get it right.
The Road Within scored points with me for a couple of reasons: First, Gren Wells, writer and director of the movie, got her facts straight. The portrayals of TS and OCD in the movie really are spot on. I really didn’t find anything I could point to and say, “Stereotype!” much less “Wrong!” Next, the performances by Robert Sheehan and Dev Patel, each playing a character with TS (Vincent) and OCD (Alex), respectively, were also spot on. Each picked up on the frustration that can hit when the events of the world around you are running completely counter to what your brain is telling you it needs. And each did a wonderful job of balancing the human aspects of their characters against the outward signs of what’s going on in their characters’ heads.
But what really won me over with this movie was the humor. It’s full of humor the way humor so often strikes us in real life: raw, painful, and for some inexplicable reason just… funny.
Too often movies with TS or OCD characters go after the slapstick gag: the swearing tic at just the wrong moment (badump bump) or having to gingerly step over cracks in the floor (rimshot!) But in The Road Within one of the funniest moments came about because Vincent, Robert Sheehan’s character, wasn’t swearing. Wasn’t ticcing at all, actually. And not five seconds later, Vincent’s reaction to not ticcing caused one of the more emotional scenes in the movie. For me, anyway, because he echoed a sentiment I’ve often felt frustrated by. I found myself simultaneously laughing and thinking, “Damn…”
And that, right there, is what really sold me on the movie. I’ve never identified with the TS character in Deuce Bigelow. I’ve never really identified with any TS character I’ve seen in a movie, with the exception of Front of the Class. But I found myself identifying with both Vincent and Alex in The Road Within. As I watched the film I kept thinking, “Yeah. That.”
In writing all this I’ve utterly neglected the third character that makes up the main trio in the movie: Marie, played by Zoë Kravitz, who has an unspecified eating disorder. I have no experience with eating disorders, but one bit of dialog in the movie sold me on her character. Vincent and Marie are sitting in a car, talking. Vincent asks the most obvious question: “Why can’t you eat?” Marie replies, “It’s not that easy.” As simple as this sounds, it made enough sense to Vincent that he didn’t press further.
One review I read of this movie seemed to miss that point. It accused Gren Wells of backing down from really tackling issues of mental health, and cited that same exact scene to make the point. But to me it carried the day. How many times have I been asked, “Why can’t you just stop?” I know I’m projecting, but how many times was Vincent asked that in his life? Whether it was Sheehan’s acting or my own projection, when Marie answered his question with that simple sentence it seemed like Vincent reacted the only way he could: realizing it was the same damn thing with the same damn answer. If it really was that simple, he wouldn’t tic and she would eat. But it’s not that easy. It never is.
In the end the movie asks something of its viewers that people I know with TS and OCD would ask of the people around them: Stop thinking of us as a diagnosis. Think of us as people. Sometimes our needs make no sense: a need to know things are clean, a need to make a sound or move a certain way, a need to gain just an ounce of control over a body that so often isn’t under our control at all. But sometimes they’re the same needs as everyone else’s: the need to eat, the need to sleep, the need to feel accepted or even loved by the people around us. The Road Within is more a story about three people than it is a story about three people with mental health issues. I think it’s better that way.