Making films about disabled people is very difficult: there’s always a risk of either cheap exploitation or cheap saccharine. 2002′s Pumpkin definitely avoids both pitfalls – it’s a subversive, surprisingly touching tale of a seemingly superficial young girl, Carolyn(Christina Ricci), who finds herself falling in love with a disabled boy, nicknamed Pumpkin (Hank Harris).
Caroline’s in a sorority that’s competing against others for “Sorority of the Year.” Part of the competition includes good works. Carolyn’s sorority members volunteer to help train with the Challenged Games (a fictional version of the Special Olympics). Upon learning of the project, Carolyn expresses her disapproval of getting involved in the Challenged Games - she expresses an ugly horror at having disabled people on the college campus. Her concerns are met with horrified offense – her sorority sisters get to pretend to be holier than Carolyn and accuse her of being prejudiced. She shares her discomfort with her boyfriend, a promising tennis star, Kent (Sam Ball), who also scolds Carolyn and insists that disabled people are the same like everyone else.
Resigned to her fate, she joins her sisters on a field and is paired with Pumpkin. The two work on discus-throwing and their initial meeting doesn’t go smoothly – she’s unnerved at times, but her reserve thaws. Still very misguided, she decides to take Pumpkin out on a double date – she takes her girlfriend, Cici (a very good Melissa McCarthy), not cluing her in on how “special” Pumpkin is; the date, to a beach, is a disaster, causing a rift between her and Kent and Cici. Outside her life with Pumpkin, Carolyn’s free falling a bit: while the sorority is important to her life, she begins to feel alienated by the vacuity and insincerity of her sisters; she also feels disconnected with school, and is worried that her relationship with Kent is falling apart as well. Pumpkin has to contend with an over-protective mother (the always-brilliant Brenda Blethyn), who refuses to acknowledge that he’s an adult. The more time Pumpkin and Carolyn spend together the close they become, until Carolyn realizes she’s fallen in love with him; she then must deal with the societal fallout when political correctness is removed to reveal the ugliness of Carolyn’s surroundings.
Because of the subject matter, a deft hand is needed, or the film will implode - despite the caustic tone, the unflinching look at hypocrisy, and brutal, black humor, the movie still manages to impart emotion. The film’s writer – Adam Larson Broder (who co-directed with Anthony Abrams) – makes sure that he maintains the vital balance of dark comedy and sincere emotion. What’s surprising is how touching the film can be at times, without indulging in facile sentimentality – Pumpkin’s life is pretty grim, but he’s got a dignity and an intelligence – he’s aware of his differences, but does not want to be defined by them, which isn’t easy as he’s under the constant watch of his vigilant mother who refuses to see Pumpkin as he is: an adult man – there’s a poignant scene in which she berates Pumpkin for looking at girlie magazines, insisting that “special” people like him shouldn’t be interested in things like sex.
The film’s producers also assembled a game cast - Ricci is able to convey the evolution and unraveling of her character with an expert skill. As the title character, Harris is also very good – he doesn’t have too many lines, but he has a commanding presence - and thankfully, he doesn’t fall into the clichés and stereotypes of playing disabled people (for evidence on actors very guilty of this, look to Juliette Lewis’ and Giovani Ribisi’s minstrel act in the execrable The Other Sister). Blethyn as the overwrought and overbearing mother is predictably fantastic.
Pumpkin won’t be for everyone – in fact, its reception is markedly divided. Some find it ugly and disgusting, others find it brilliant – while both sides are too extreme, it is a great movie. It challenges ideas of how society treats folks with disabilities – we tend to infantilize them, and the movie shows the problem in that practice. However, this isn’t an “after school special” nor are we given easy, uplifting sermons of tolerance – the ending is pretty ambiguous, which is surprisingly satisfying.