Netflix’s The Fundamentals of Caring is the kind of movie that seems almost designed for film critics to hate. Consider the premise: An indie comedy where a depressed writer takes a job caring for a teenager with muscular dystrophy. Together, they embark on a road trip to find the boy’s father, and end up meeting several other colorful characters and learning something about themselves and each other along the way.
The whole idea signals a potentially deadly mix of quirk and saccharine. Yet somehow, the movie manages to be charming.
This is probably due in large part to the performance of Paul Rudd as Ben, the caregiver. Rudd is the kind of actor that is so innately watchable, with the boyish, ageless good looks of a Tom Cruise, but the everyman likability of a Jack Lemmon, it feels all but impossible at this point for him not to brighten whatever movie he is in. And while The Fundamentals of Caring is far from his best role, it’s nice to see that despite being in Marvel’s stable of superstars, he still has the desire to do smaller projects. Incidentally, his role here is not dissimilar to the jaded mentor character he played a few years ago in David Wain’s Role Models. (A much better and funnier movie.)
Rudd also has a nice chemistry with Craig Roberts (Neighbors, Submarine, Red Oaks,) who plays Trevor, the British teenager with muscular dystrophy that Ben has been assigned to care for. To get a tangible feel for their dynamic, you can take a look at this clip which BuzzFeed was freaking out over last week.
The movie contains some other good performances too, including the underappreciated but excellent Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty, The King’s Speech, Fifty Shades of Grey,) as Elsa, Trevor’s mom. Then there’s the women Trevor and Ben pick up on their trip, including a pregnant woman named Peaches, played by Megan Ferguson, and Dot, a runaway teenager played by Selena Gomez in an unexpectedly fun performance. Gomez manages to be convincing in what should have by all accounts been a thankless and tiresome role. Without spoiling anything, the always great Bobby Cannavale (R.I.P. Vinyl) also shows up at the end of the movie to round out the ensemble.
The Fundamentals of Caring manages to be funny (favorite line: “I think a bunch of big birds with muscular dystrophy are fuckin’ you up.”) although like most indie comedies which come out of the Sundance Film Festival—where the movie premiered—it never lets itself get too funny so it can focus on the characters’ relationships. What saves the experience from being just another pile of mush about a caregiver and a patient who change each other’s lives in “unexpected” ways (like France’s The Intouchables or Me Before You, from earlier this year) is that it doesn’t let Trevor off the hook. Yes, he’s in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an annoying, sexist dick.
Fortunately, the movie doesn’t go too far in that direction either; it’s not as if anybody was asking for a film about the Bubble Boy from Seinfeld. But thanks to some pretty sharp characterization in the script, and a decent performance from Roberts, Trevor is believably sympathetic and frustrating all at once.
For example, here’s some dialog from a tense moment early on between Trevor and Ben:
Ben: “You think because you’re in a wheelchair that gives you the right to do and say whatever you want?”
Trevor: “You ever think maybe I’m just a prick with or without the wheelchair?”
On the nose, but you get the idea.
There are some maudlin and manipulative moments toward the end of the film where Ben is forced to reckon with the loss of his own child years earlier. Ben’s backstory isn’t bad. But it’s not only that we have seen the melancholic, stuck-in-a-rut writer character so many times, it’s that the only cliche in indie filmmaking more common is the loss of a child. Of course this would create a hole (much like the representative one the characters end up traveling to in the movie) where anyone would find it nearly impossible to climb out of. Unfortunately, the way The Fundamentals of Caring mines this detail for tragedy feels exploitative and unnecessary. It’s not helped either by writer/director Rob Burnett’s decision to shoot much of the film in a dreary soft focus.
That said, Burnett has crafted an entertaining if not particularly memorable movie. The Fundamentals of Caring may not be worth it for those who aren’t big Rudd fans, or who have a specific aversion to indie sincerity, but there are far worse ways to spend a little under an hour and 40 minutes on Netflix.
The Fundamentals of Caring is Netflix’s seventh original film, and it’s interesting to examine what its presence indicates about the streaming giant’s plans for cinematic content going forward. Fundamentals was preceded by the child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation; the long-awaited sequels Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday; the Adam Sandler comedies The Ridiculous 6 and The Do-Over; and the Ricky Gervais comedy Special Correspondents. Netflix has also acquired 16 other films, which have premiered or will have their first-run on the streaming site, despite not being produced by the company internally.
Everyone is familiar with Netflix’s Sandler deal by this point, but his movies are outliers in the company’s grand plans to make a splash in the indie film market, something Netflix and Amazon both made headlines for at Sundance this year. And while Netflix has certainly become better known for its original TV shows, the indie film slate definitely has the potential to be impressive.
But that’s what makes The Fundamentals of Caring so frustrating. On the one hand, it’s a perfectly fine example of what the indie film market has to offer. On the other, it does nothing to transcend expectations; for better and for worse, it’s exactly what people expect when they hear the words “indie comedy.”