Assisted Living

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 03/22/03 06:15:57

"One of the Saddest Films I’ve Ever Seen"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Billing as a tragic-comedy, audiences may not be expecting the emotional jolt of hardened reality they’re about to get injected with in Assisted Living. There are simple ways to get tears in movies. Killing off a beloved character is the most obvious. Sometimes all you need though are cuteness factors or inherent sadness involving children, animals or the elderly. A base-level screenplay or a lazy director can insert any of the following into their story for a quick and decisive kleenex-grab, but a real writer and a real director can do it to you without even realizing you’re reaching for it.

I remember my days working in an old folks home; a service requirement of my Catholic Confirmation. Of all the assignments I was scheduled to do during that time, this was certainly my most and least favorite. I loved interacting with the people there, all of whom very friendly to the seventh graders spending hours with them and assisting the orderlies. It was also a disheartening experience, watching a group of senior citizens treated like little children. We would play games with rubber bowling balls, tell them stories and watch others talk down to them and say things like “mmmm, ice cream.” How far these people had come in life to go right back to the beginning and have nothing to do but await their final trip from whence they all came.

Assisted Living is a lot like that. Filmed in a documentary-like style, we listen as employees of the Masonic Homes of Kentucky Assisted Living (where it was actually staged) reminisce of Todd (Michael Bonsignore), the janitor, who was recently fired from the establishment. The day before we see Todd’s daily routine. Oversleep, late for work, even a joint on the way. Then its time to clean, help out with certain activities for the senior citizens and get lip service from his boss for his incessant tardiness.

One of the homes’ tenants is Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley). She’s a little cantankerous in the way a great percentage view older people. But, hey, she’s earned it hasn’t she? She’s lived her life and if she wants someone to share the community television with her so she can watch a program about Australia, so be it. But what’s so important about Australia? Her favorite assistant, Todd, is willing to help out, but doesn’t have time to constantly be waiting for a decision about TV or bingo.

Clocking in at less than 80 minutes, it would be unfair to venture further as the film builds up to an emotional understanding so powerful that you will want to take some of your laughter back. Once humorous scenes like the role-playing of the inhabitants against harassing telemarketers and Todd’s “phone calls from Heaven” become pathetic attempts to juxtapose some life into the lives of this closed-off world.

The relationship between Todd and Mrs. Pearlman is all we have (and all SHE has) to grasp a comprehension of how tragic this situation is. Those who are all alone or who were dumped there now have to scrape by on the rules they should have already earned a free pass to avoid. Imagine living 75 years and then being told when you can and can’t make a phone call.

Riley and Bonsignore both give very tricky performances. When we first meet them, one’s a bit of a slacker joke and the other a nuisance. Both actors have to pull us into their turnarounds with only a single scene; a heartbreaking one filled with frustration, anger, lost hope and ultimately, acceptance that some could view in that manipulative way I first spoke about. But the clarity that results of why this scene plays out the way it does will have you thinking about anything besides the words “easy cry.”

Using words like tenants and inhabitants represent a clinical description of those who live under these conditions. But it’s not an unnecessary one since they are barely treated like human beings; instead more like children and animals. But with a big, plastered smile. Writer/director Elliot Greenebaum perfectly captures the claustrophobic setting of these homes, much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so that when we finally get out for our catharsis, we’re glad it was worth Todd’s job and we want to call our grandparents or parents or even someone who may not have anyone calling them anymore. After all, they’ve earned it, haven’t they?

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