This New Film Highlights the Joys and Challenges of Young Adulthood With Down Syndrome
Disability self-advocates are not fond of the word “special.” That word has been code for segregation, low expectations, stereotypes, de-humanization and so much more. So when I saw the title of the film “Especial,” which recently played at the ReelAbilities Film Festival NYC, I was hesitant. Especial means special in Spanish. I almost pre-judged the film based on the title alone.
It did not take long to see that this film is exceptional in numerous ways. Through the magic of film, viewers are transported to Venezuela, focusing on the beauty of its people and culture, with the backdrop of a harder life than most Americans are used to. Yet with all the differences between the USA and Venezuela, the film reminds us over and over that we are more alike than different.
Spreading your wings and finding your path in life is a challenging time for youth in general. When a young adult has Down syndrome, this time in their life often has extra challenges and hurdles — for them, and all those around who love and care for them.
This film highlights the story of a single father raising a 23-year-old son with Down syndrome. The father is a former well-known jazz drummer, expertly played by composer/musician/actor Rupert Vazquez. The top four jazz musicians in Venezuela are shown in this movie. Because of alcohol and other factors, he has fallen on hard times and is a watchman, working for a boss who treats him with regular disrespect and condemnation.
His son, Chuo, is beautifully portrayed by actor Greyber Rengifo. Chuo is a student in a segregated class who loves art above all. As the Spanish mom of a 21-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, who was fully included, is also an artist, and is now transitioning to the world of work, I felt a kinship with the main characters immediately.
Inadequate education systems, little to no transition to adulthood planning, low expectations, the difficulty of balancing work and parenting for single parents, independence, navigating feelings of romantic love, honest talk about sexuality, the bond between a father and his son, and finding your true calling are just some of the themes honestly and organically addressed in this movie.
The constant disrespect, lack of understanding, and prevalence of low expectations from society, and sometimes one’s own family, was clearly shown in this film. Greyber Rengifo, and the movie did a masterful job of addressing each situation with patience and grace. For those of us who can never pretend to know what it is like to move through life with the constant judgment from others that many with significant disabilities face, this window into that reality is necessary and honest.
I was honored to be able to ask the director Ignacio Marquez, Greyber Rengifo, and Rupert Vasquez, what their favorite parts are in the movie. Without spoiling the movie, I will share two of their answers.
Greyber’s favorite part was when he rode the city bus alone. This was one of my favorite parts as well. He pumps his fist with triumph outside the bus window. This simple act of independence is one many without significant and intellectual disabilities take for granted. It is one that scares families, who sometimes never let their loved one out of their sight for fear of taking any risks. Yet this milestone in life is one that helps an adult not just get a job, but keep that job.
The director’s favorite part was when the father helps teach his son about human sexuality. I honestly was stunned to see this in the movie, but it was handled very tastefully. And this was groundbreaking because people with significant disabilities are also sexual beings. Self-advocates consistently say that part of their life is ignored by family and so many close to them.
“Especial” is an important movie for everyone to see, not just self-advocates and families. Everyone. When it is available for general release, make sure your friends, co-workers, and families see it as well. That’s how we all learn more about each other, and gradually meld our dreams and aspirations for the better world we all want to see.
Image via Somos Films.