• Jay Hahr

"The Upside" Provides Escape and Genuine Portrayal of Disability


This is the first in a two-part series of articles on "The Upside," released in theaters January 11.

Many in the disability community were chomping at the bit when trailers first came out for “The Upside.” Regardless of how it does at the box office overall, it will be viewed widely by those in our community.

A question I had in anticipation of its release was “What impact will 'The Upside' have on the disability movement”? As was mentioned in my preview on the movie, disability has not always been at the forefront of mainstream movie-going consciousness. So I wondered, “Would 'The Upside' create controversy or conversation"? This piece will be a review of the movie (contains spoilers,) but also will answer these important questions.

The plot of the movie is straightforward. Ex-con, Dell, played by Kevin Hart, is in search of work to keep from going back to prison. Dell stumbles into a care-taking job for Phillip, played by Bryan Cranston, a wealthy man who is also a quadriplegic. The movie chronicles their relationship over a six-month period. The two actors played their roles excellently. While this was a comedy and the laughs start immediately, the movie doesn’t hesitate to jump right in to the meat and poignantly address key disability issues.

The movie addresses everything from the terms that people use to describe their caregivers to dating with a disability. Although this writer does not hold the same belief about language regarding caregivers that Phillip does, the language used was tastefully effective. For example, they used the term “care-er” or “life auxiliary “to describe caregivers. While this writer does not place heavy emphasis on the language used it did open my eyes to a more positive way to address my helpers.

At one point in the movie, Phillip and Dell are discussing Phillip’s accident. The conversation leads Phillip to experience an alternative form of pain relief provided by Dell-- marijuana. While the scene was funny and caused many in the theater to laugh, it suddenly dealt with an issue millions of people with disabilities encounter. This was not the only scene in the movie I could relate to. Throughout the film Phillip receives letters from a lady named Lily. When they finally decide to meet, Phillip quickly realizes things aren’t going well. Without giving away the rest of the movie I will say that, overall, it was extremely enjoyable to watch.

The treatment of people with disabilities in this movie should start new conversations. Phillip was portrayed as a person first, something for which we’ve been advocating for years and years. I believe, despite the controversy of Cranston portraying Phillip, rather than a disabled individual, “The Upside” will help to change the way people with disabilities are viewed by society. Yes, Phillip is wealthy and not all people with disabilities are wealthy but he was not portrayed as a sympathetic character. By that I mean, although he is relatable, there are points in the movie where you see his true flaws. Although there have been other films that have tackled disability issues, “The Upside” shattered my expectations by presenting disability as part of one’s identity, but not the defining trait of one's personhood.

As a final thought I would like to go out on a limb and say if you want to laugh while gaining a better understanding of people with disabilities, you should see this movie. Overall, I give the movie five enthusiastic stars

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FL SAND and Florida Self-Advocacy Central are projects provided by the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, Inc., supported in part by grant numbers 1801FLBSDD, 1901FLSCDD-01, and 2001FLSCDD-01 from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.