It's about time the young man with a developmental disability gets the girl! So it plays, as the new feature film Pumpkin (United Artists) inadvertently advances a research and policy agenda. Pumpkin, which was featured at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, is scheduled to open in theaters in late June. The film is written by Adam Larson Broder and co-directed by Broder and Tony R. Abrams.
In the film, Jesse Romanoff, a.k.a. "Pumpkin" (played by Hank Harris), is a young adult portrayed as having mental retardation and some physical impairment. Christina Ricci stars as Carolyn McDuffy, a college student whose sorority has adopted the "Challenge Games" (modeled loosely after Special Olympics) as its charity. As part of her volunteer activities, Carolyn begins to work with Pumpkin, who is one of the athletes. Over the course of the movie, Carolyn grows disaffected with her well-built and handsome tennis-star boyfriend, the shallowness of her sorority sisters, and the crudeness with which many of her friends refer to persons with retardation. Meanwhile, her interest in Pumpkin increases; she becomes enamored with his sweetness and apparent goodness in contrast to the jaded and self-serving values of everyone else around her.
Christina Ricci's performance as an impressionable young woman who is confused, idealistic and driven to "do the fight thing" by her emotions and romanticism is highly believable. The relationship between Carolyn and Pumpkin deepens and, eventually, is consummated. There is great awkwardness when they are discovered in bed by Pumpkin's mother, Judy Romanoff (played brilliantly by Brenda Bletham), who feels that Carolyn essentially raped her son.
What distinguishes Pumpkin from other Hollywood films (e.g., The Other Sister or I Am Sam) is that it is not didactic. It does not portray developmental disability as a huge obstacle to be overcome, nor is it painfully saccharine. Rather, the story itself is a dark comedy in which Pumpkin's developmental disability--and how people treat him because of it--acts as a prism through which to view the personality and character flaws of other individuals (who are portrayed in almost-flaws-tale stereotypes).
To place disability and film in context, Stephen Safran, who is a professor of special education at Ohio University, has investigated the frequency of Academy Awards given for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress for films that feature individuals with a disability. In a 1998 paper in The Journal of Special Education, Safran cites statistics that demonstrate a dramatic increase in filmmakers' interest in disabilities over the past several decades. In the 1930s, 3 percent of the Academy Awards went to movies involving disability; in the 1990s, 44 percent of the awards did so. The most common disabilities portrayed in films are psychiatric in nature (52 percent), followed by physical disabilities (20 percent) and then sensory impairments (16 percent). Disabilities involving specific intellectual impairment, such as autism, mental retardation or overall developmental disability, are less frequently portrayed, but recent examples include Forrest Gump and Rainman.
In this growing company of films about persons with disabilities, Pumpkin stands out for its complex subject matter. The film not only introduces the viewer to a likable young man who happens to have a physical and a cognitive impairment, but it also confronts unresolved issues around sexuality and disability--a subject few other films have approached.
Sexuality is often denied. One way to deny that sexuality exists is to treat an adolescent or young adult with mental retardation as an innocent child. Ever since Jesse Romanoff was a little boy, his mother referred to him as "Pumpkin," a term of endearment. That she still does it seems inappropriate, yet it is one way she can keep her "little pumpkin" from growing up. Her tone of voice in addressing Pumpkin, as well as her resistance to allowing him any heterosexual encounters, contributes to his infantilization. …