All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players
Shakespeare, As You Like It
What role does Down syndrome play in Where Hope Grows?
The film centers around Calvin Campbell, played by Kris Polaha, a former professional baseball player, sinking into alcoholism and haunted by his failing in the big leagues. His behavior is not only self-destructive, but it’s destroying his relationship with his 17-year old daughter, Katie, played by McKaley Miller.
Then, Campbell goes to his local supermarket.
There, he meets Produce, a young man with Down syndrome. His nickname is based on working in the produce section, where he can name the SKU codes for every fruit and vegetable.
The friendship that develops between Campbell and Produce is where hope grows in the movie. Not wanting to give anything away (since it’s still in theaters and I hope you will go see it) one of the film’s producers, Milan Chakraborty explained while filming in Louisville, Kentucky that Produce serves as the “light” in the film.
Indeed he does.
Save the Cat
Produce is played by David DeSanctis, a young man with Down syndrome. DeSanctis makes his acting debut in the film. He had to memorize 300 lines of dialogue, given in emotionally tense scenes, and filmed during long, cold days during October 2013. DeSanctis’ performance has drawn universal praise, even from those critical of the film.
In screenwriting, there is a technique called “save the cat.” In order for the audience to want to root for the lead character, an opportunity will arise early in the film where the character gets to “save the cat,” i.e. do a good deed showing he’s a good guy and worth pulling for.
In a way, DeSanctis’ Produce plays the role of the cat which Campbell saves–except it’s the other way around.
Without his friendship with Produce, the viewer wouldn’t care what happened to Campbell, a drunk, absent father. You wouldn’t root for him; instead you’d have the same reaction Katie has early on when she tells her dad she’s given up on him.
But, Produce ends up saving Campbell from himself.
This is why the role of Produce is an important one for people to see.
“Mere blobs” no more
You see, unfortunately, too often the role assigned to Down syndrome is one of being a burden on society:
- Dr. Owen delivers a child with Down syndrome and counsels his parents to let the boy die from lack of care because, in Dr. Owen’s estimation, they are “mere blobs.”
- Bioethicist Peter Singer argues that parents should be allowed to kill their newborns with disabilities.
- Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins advises that the moral act is to abort children with Down syndrome after a prenatal test result.
- And, Ken Song, CEO of Ariosa, argues that his company’s prenatal test, Harmony, should be offered to more women because if more will abort following a prenatal test result, it will save society money.
For these highly-educated men, Down syndrome is not where hope grows.
Not a stereotype
DeSanctis’ portrays Produce as cheerful, spiritual, silly, and huggy. He also portrays Produce as sullen, surprised, afraid, and angry. But, the first list of characteristics is the stereotype of Down syndrome: “oh, they’re so loving and happy all the time.”
But, actually, research and everyday experience supports the view that Down syndrome plays a positive role in this world:
- 99% of parents say they love their child with Down syndrome.
- 88% of brothers and sisters consider themselves better people because they have a sibling with Down syndrome.
- 99% of people with Down syndrome are happy with their lives.
- A genetic counselor finds herself “charmed” by her patients with Down syndrome.
- Physicians and non-physicians find they have a more positive outlook about Down syndrome the more they get to know people with Down syndrome.
Even stretching back to the original description of the condition by the syndrome’s namesake John Langdon Down:
They have considerable power of imitation, even bordering on being mimics. They are humorous and a lively sense of the ridiculous often colours their mimicry.
The positive role of Down syndrome
As someone recently said, “If something is true, it’s not sentimental.”
DeSanctis’ performance has been so well received because it portrays a truth about Down syndrome and the positive role it has to play in this world.
If the educated men mentioned above, and others who hold their ignorant views, ever watched Where Hope Grows, they would be confronted by the truth of DeSanctis: an adult man with Down syndrome, riding a bicycle, reading and memorizing SKU codes and 300 more lines, and working at a paying job, not in a supermarket, but as an actor in a film with a nationwide release.
They and all viewers will see a role for Down syndrome in this world, a positive role, and one that gives hope.
For Where Hope Grows to extend its run in theaters, you need to go see it. I hope you will at your local theater this week and take a friend with you.
I was lucky enough to both see the film and meet DeSanctis at a special, sold-out screening for my local organization. A local news report on the evening can be viewed at this link.