Maria Flood reflects on Maite Alberdi’s The Grown Ups, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.
Poignant, illuminating and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Maite Alberdi’s The Grown Ups tells the story of ill-fated lovers Anita and Andrés who meet in a bakery, part of a school for Down syndrome adults in Chile. Like any couple in the first blush of love, Andrès and Anita want it all: love, intimacy, sex, babies, and a home of their own. As Anita says, ‘my parents were happy and I want the same for myself’. But Anita’s mother and Andrès’ sisters (the ‘Grown Ups’ of the title) are against the match: they feel that the couple are not mature enough, and anyway, it is illegal for people with Down syndrome to get married in Chile.
Strong personalities emerge in the group. The irrepressible Rita hides chocolate in her pockets in defiance of her mother’s instructions to stay off sweets because she is on a diet. Rita’s impulsive sexual urges towards the shy Dany also have to be tamed. Andrès is a self-confessed reformed womaniser, who promises his eternal love to Anita after she emerges from a cardboard cake, in the manner of Debbie Reynolds in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for his birthday. Resident philosopher Ricardo bemoans his meagre pay from working in an old person’s home and the scenes in which he listens to the elderly and makes them laugh force us to question the view of those with Down syndrome as non-contributory in society, and the ways in which work and care are compensated.
Andrès perhaps sums up the main sentiment behind the film when he says, ‘we will open people’s eyes and they will see us having a normal life together’. The film certainly opens eyes by inviting us into the world of the school, and focuses almost exclusively on the adults with Down syndrome: their family members and the workers at the school are occasionally pictured in the background or heard in the voiceover. This is both the film’s most unique feature, and a potential criticism because it risks being somewhat idealistic about the challenges faced by parents and carers when Down syndrome adults embark on romantic and sexual relationships, contraception being a key issue (although it is mentioned in a group meeting).
But this is the point of the film: to give the members of the group their own voice without the interruptions of the ‘Grown Ups’. Documentary critic Bill Nicholas has argued that documentaries are about the play of the familiar and the unfamiliar: we want to see something we recognize and understand, as well as something new and eye opening. The film brings us into lives filled with familiar fun, friendships, conflicts, tensions, dreams, hopes, and unfulfilled longings. By opening windows onto ways of seeing the world that many viewers will have very little knowledge about, the film draws on the common concerns shared by humans all over the world and the neurological spectrum: how to love, how to belong, and how to find meaning. As Ricardo says, ‘what confuses me is how short and complex life is’ — a feeling of perplexity we can all share.
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