I don’t know why I do it to myself. I can guess my own reaction pretty well just from the trailers. But on occasion, a part of me can’t help watching inspirational movies with characters who have disabilities in main roles. The only theory I have is, maybe I’m foolishly optimistic. Maybe I always hope that the character with a disability will be represented more fairly than last time. That was certainly the case with Touched by Grace, a movie by Parable Films that aired on Daystar TV this afternoon and will be airing all week. I don’t usually do movie reviews on here, but Touched by Grace merits one.
Let’s start with the good stuff, because there is some. As you might have guessed, TBG stars a character with a disability. The basic story goes like this: Kara, a typical teen, has been forced to transfer to a new school in senior year because of Dad’s job. She immediately meets a nice, attractive fellow senior named Brandon and some potential friends in Quinn and Skylar. Yet she also meets Grace, another senior who happens to have Down Syndrome. Grace and Kara are both artists who like to sketch and take photographs. Both desire Homecoming dates and to fit in at school. Grace is a real person, as much as the movie will let her be (we’ll get to that).
The movie also takes a good stand on not only bullying, but the value of PWD’s lives. In other words, this is not just about, “Don’t be mean to disabled people.” There is a discussion about the fact that PWDs are primarily seen as burdens in many people’s minds, that 90% of babies with Down Syndrome are aborted, and that these things are wrong. The message is clear: all life has value and deserves respect.
Okay, now I guess we’ve gotta deal with the tough stuff. The movie turns on the fulcrum of popularity vs. disability. Kara’s new friends Quinn and Skylar are the queen bees of Greenbriar High, and they make clear that they want nothing to do with Grace, her friend Ben who also has Down Syndrome, or any students they call “the R word.” In fact, it is implied that if Kara maintains her friendship with Grace, Skylar, Quinn, and others will make her life Hades. Skylar is seen rolling her eyes and making fun of Ben, whom she works with because of an “outreach program” (and we’ll get to that, too). She vocally expresses disdain for Grace and Ben being in “her” homecoming group and the possibility of riding to the big dance on a “short bus.” She and Quinn make fun of Grace, imitating her perceived voice and calling her a “mongoloid.” It’s a typical story arc in which the kids are stereotypical–good, bad, or handicapped (and therefore perfectly pure). And never the groups shall overlap or show each other’s characteristics. It’s so stereotypical, in fact, that both Skylar and Quinn are skinny, blonde, flip their hair, and talk in borderline Valley Girl voices.
(The next section contains spoilers):
If I could stop here, I would, but I feel it is imperative we talk about the ending of TBG. Without going into major detail, Skylar and Quinn rig the homecoming voting system so that Grace will be nominated for Homecoming Court. They think that no one will vote for her, but the plan backfires when everyone does. Grace is legitimately elected Queen, and the popular girls turn it into a horrible senior prank. The student body laughs at her as she sings “This Little Light of Mine” onstage at Skylar’s urging. Kara is blamed for the whole thing. Grace has a severe heart episode onstage because she, like some people with Down Syndrome, has a heart defect. Because Grace has no donor, she dies in the hospital, after a tear jerking forgiveness scene with Kara.
Kara, her parents, and a bunch of kids from school, including one-dimensional Christians who are only there to talk about how great Grace is, come to her funeral. At the funeral, the pastor makes the above-mentioned speech. But then he refers to Grace as “the least of these.” And if I wasn’t upset before, now I’m like, What the who???
Most people who read this review might say I’m being harsh or mean. I don’t intend to, really. Maybe I am, but let’s look at some reality here, folks.
-Grace *dies*. She exists to be a morality pet for “normal” kids like Kara. Even though her date Ben lives, he is a one-dimensional character, representative only of Down Syndrome. Grace and Ben are the only two characters with disabilities in the entire film who have speaking roles.
-The R-word and other slurs are used. Other than saying, “That’s messed up” or “Don’t say that, dude” nobody does anything to stop it, even and especially the Christian kids.
-Speaking of, Grace is the only character who openly discusses having faith in Jesus. This, along with her Purity Sue characterization, trivializes faith, especially the faith of PWDs who embrace Jesus, in the worst way.
-Kara’s own mother, and other adults, act openly uncomfortable around students with disabilities. This is never discussed or dealt with; the adults never show regret or repentance, or understand why they should. Similarly, Skylar never gets a comeuppance for engineering the prank. She is forgiven, which I am fine with. But nobody ever says, “There are consequences for these actions” and makes her face them.
-Grace is treated as fragile and childlike. In one scene, she begins crying and having an asthma/heart episode. Kara frets. Brandon essentially bribes Grace to stop crying and take her medicine by promising if she does, he will get her a Homecoming date. That is so demeaning I cannot begin to tell you.
Finally, we need to talk about the “least of these” thing. Jesus did say that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. He did mean the needy, people with disabilities, and so on, because that was His culture. But I do not think He ever meant PWDs are lesser people or “the least.” Yes, PWDs need to be touched by grace, but don’t we all? We are all the least of these. I’ll admit it: as a human, I freaking suck. If we’re smart, we’ll all admit that. God save us all. Touched by grace is not something only PWDs need, or that only PWDs do. It’s open for everybody, and that’s the message I wish these movies sent. Dear Parable Films and other such companies, please make your characters with disabilities three-dimensional. Let them be the main characters, represent faith realistically, and teach us the way we all teach each other.
Oh yeah by the way: keep them alive.
May we all seek and find grace today, and may we all allow it to wash us clean.