Going a Long Way in a Wheelchair

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Gus van Sant, USA 2018).

Review by Franco Ferrarini, Gastroenterologist and Film Reviewer.

Don’t Worry, Gus van Sant’s latest film, explores several mental health themes through revisiting the real life memories of the cartoonist and writer John Callahan. In the film, John (Joachin Phoenix) suffered from serious psychological traumas in childhood: he was abandoned by his mother soon after birth, and then adopted by a family with which he was never able to integrate. He becomes an alcoholic at 13 and then quadriplegic by 21 after a car crash. After such disastrous life events, Callahan against all odds is able to rebuild his life supported by three key factors: an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) support group, the love of his girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara), and his talent as a sarcastic cartoonist.

 

John’s relationship with his friend Dexter (Jack Black), who was responsible for the accident, is significant: whereas John has come to terms with his disability in a wheelchair, Dexter who was unharmed in the car crash is still struggling psychologically. Dexter openly admits that his life has been a disaster. When they hug each other, there is no doubt that John is the consoler and Dexter the consoled, contrary to what one might have expected. The role reversal is particularly meaningful as it shows that disabled people who succeed in overcoming the burden of disability have a lot to offer in terms of psychological support to other people.

 

The relationship between alcohol and/or drug dependence and early life adversities are well-documented (1). Moreover these adversities have been shown to influence the ability to adapt to stressful events in later adult life (2). In this regard, Callahan’s life trajectory is not at all unusual. To elaborate more on the ‘theory of adaptation’, let us examine Callahan’s story through the “three-hit” hypothesis (3): hit one is ‘genetic predisposition’, hit two is ‘early life environment’, and hit three is ‘later life environment’. For Callahan, later life environment had both negative (alcohol addiction and physical disability), and positive (the three aforementioned factors, namely professional support, a loving partner, and a creative talent) aspects. Ultimately the positive influences overcome the ‘three hit’ forces.

 

Callahan’s creative skill as a cartoonist reminds us of the potential of art therapy as a useful tool for supporting the well-being of patients with a multitude of psychological disorders (4). Through art one can express what cannot be expressed in words, enabling one to enter a transcendent world detached from the drudgery of everyday life. Moreover, the realisation of one’s artistic talents increases self-confidence in social and professional interactions.

 

Gus Van Sant skillfully introduces the viewer to the AA club environment, and fleshes out the characters’ details with clever camera moves and insightful dialogue. As such Van Sant aptly achieves the ultimate objective of cinema: an intense empathic immersion of the viewer, just as if she/he were personally involved in the events on-screen.

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