As history has proven time and time again, Hollywood is not always the kindest place for certain people. All of those who want to pursue acting can give it their all and still come up short. And the answer to why they can’t make it simply lies in the fact that they don’t fit the Hollywood mold. Or a certain something about them can only limit them to playing one type. And yet, the big executives are too afraid to really say the truth and simply resort to the usual “You aren’t what we’re seeking” excuse.
Even going back into the early stages of filmmaking, the movies and general mainstream media have mostly molded the mindset of audiences by making them believe that actors and actresses live glamorous lifestyles and are all beautiful. These objective fantasies are shattered when people have to face reality and accept the fact that not everyone in Hollywood is all one and the same. There are others out there who aren’t Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe. But you don’t see them that often, because, well, they don’t fit the stereotype.
Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life is an audacious look at how the movie industry has shaped people’s views and how they solely judge others based on looks. The plot focuses on a movie being made by a pretentious filmmaker who claims to be German and also says he was raised in the circus. Its lead actress, Mabel (Jess Weixler), plays a blind woman, but, in reality, she is not blind herself. A small cast of people with actual disabilities are put in the film in order to get the representation card and to avoid any possible scolding the filmmaker would experience if he left them out.
There’s this constant fear that, at any moment, Schimberg could turn his movie into a 90-minute soapbox statement filled with generalized arguments and constant anger that derives from vile places such as Twitter and Facebook. But the movie never veers anywhere near that direction. Instead, it is a subtle focus on how people with disabilities are looking to get the same treatment as able-bodied people. And yet, they are setback simply because of the fact that they don’t look like everyone else.
The movie being made within Chained for Life is a horror film called God’s Mistakes. It’s about a doctor and his nurse operating on those with disabilities, removing them so they can be like every other able-bodied person in the world. Mabel’s co-star is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a man born with neurofibromatosis. He is unfamiliar with acting and struggles to remember his lines. Rosenthal asks for Mabel’s help, but she has trouble looking at him and struggles with making a connection, even though the two star in the same movie together.
In addition to making a strong statement on how everyone should be treated, Chained for Life has some magnificent cinematography. The dimly-lit setting gives the film a European-style approach and a mid-'70s vibe, even though the film is set in present time. The opening sequence is one breathtaking continuous take of a scene from God’s Mistakes being filmed, as we follow Mabel’s character down to the operating room. There are other long takes throughout Chained for Life, giving the viewer that feeling of actually being on set, and they are all perfectly timed.
The movie not only gives the viewer a glimpse as to how people with disabilities are treated on one particular film set, but it also examines - through quick conversations - how Hollywood has come off as desperate in a variety of ways to show representation. Some of these lines of dialogue are heard in between takes of God’s Mistakes and don’t force their way to the front of the line in order to get heard.
Pearson, an actor with neurofibromatosis, is truly magnificent as Rosenthal. He’s someone who’s shy but also determined to fulfill his dream of acting, and he also wishes those around him wouldn’t judge him based on his disability. Wexler, as the naïve young actress, is also dazzling and learns to, eventually, accept Rosenthal for who he is.
Chained for Life largely avoids tropes and excels at being an immersive experience and one of the most important films of the year. Its message is loud and clear without being too aggressive and off-putting. Hardly does a movie that wants to make an important statement do so without cramming its message down your throat. Schimberg is able to achieve that and so much more.
Chained for Life opens Wed, Sept 11 at IFC Center (NYC) & Fri, Sept 13 at Landmark Nuart (LA)