Fictional movies about the handicapped tend to condescend ferociously, with everything boiling down to “the disabled are people too.” Characters are defined by their wheelchairs, not their souls or personalities, and for a recent example of this you need look no further than this year’s awful Rory O’Shea Was Here. Documentaries — good ones, at least — are often less constricted by storytelling conventions, and of course, the real-life characters are there for the filmmakers to exploit and adapt. And so Murderball, ostensibly a documentary about quadriplegic rugby, though one that often digresses into more general topics, becomes a compelling, genuinely moving look at life and happiness with (despite?) crippling disability. It’s a bit disorganized and deluged with topics for discussion, sure, but its grasp keeps up with its reach.

The ancient cliche is that watching people with serious disabilities is supposed to make those of us fortunate enough to be without same feel precisely that: very, very fortunate, grateful, and less prone to complaining about minutia. And yes, despite all of Murderball‘s attempts to paint its characters as normal, happy, and resentful of such condescension as someone at the grocery store asking if they can get back in the car (“I wouldn’t have come to the grocery store if I couldn’t get back in my car.”), the overwhelming feeling is that of intensely counting one’s blessings. But after that passes — and thankfully it passes after about twenty minutes — the next reaction is one of respect and admiration for people who have made so much of themselves despite such obstacles. That’s a cliche too, but it doesn’t wear out.

The sport itself, originally called “Murderball” but renamed “wheelchair rugby” since the former is a hard sell to corporate sponsors, is brutal and compelling, an entirely athletic competition that, the players are quick to find out, bears little resemblance to the Special Olympics or other events where “everyone’s a winner.” No: the rivalry between Team Canada and Team USA is fiercer than many of those in “conventional” sports, and Murderball embraces, in a rather traditional sports movie way, the triumphs and disappointments that inevitably come with such competition.

But the sports movie stuff isn’t what makes Murderball such a joy — in fact, most of the sports we see isn’t filmed or edited all that skillfully. What I loved about the film is the careful, considered way it treats its characters, telling their stories in such a way that the seemingly random detours into various aspects of living with a disability take away little. Not all of the people are equally compelling — I grew rather weary, for example, of the ex-superstar who “betrayed” the American team and went to coach for Canada when USA cut him; he’s a bit pompous and self-absorbed, though I suppose he’s allowed — but even then the film mostly stays away from the maudlin and the cloying, letting us form our own opinions instead of trying to force us to worship its subjects.

And then there’s Mark Zupan, the “tough guy” who talks trash (of the aforementioned Benedict Arnold: “if he was on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out”) in the spirit of the game, but shows a remarkable heart when introducing the life-changing sport to potential recruits or, in an affecting subplot, cementing his friendship with the man who put him in a wheelchair. There are more amazing stories here than Zupan’s — the player who lost all his limbs to meningitis, for one — but no more engaging personalities. He’s a star, which is evidenced by the extent to which he is now being deployed in the Murderball promotional effort.

The film mostly glosses over detail (though I was fascinated by the number system that determines the level of player handicap on the court at any one time), opting instead to place the sport broadly in the context of struggling and surviving with quadriplegia. It makes you grateful, yes, but also sad, and awed. It’s not a movie about how the handicapped are people too; it’s a movie that takes that fact for granted and goes on from there, with respect and admiration.


Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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