Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Dominique Swain, Brenda Blethyn
Adam Broder, Anthony Abrams
I have a true confession.
I am drawn to films that offend the sensibilities of the average American. I'm not talking about films such as "Ichi the Killer" or films with senseless, pointless and mind-bogglingly offensive/violent material. I'm simply talking about films that may, in fact, violate even my own value system yet have such a uniqueness or boldness to them that I find myself in love with them anyway.
I love "Pumpkin", a film starring Christina Ricci as Carolyn, a sorority girl at the peak of her college career with a tennis star boyfriend, money, looks and a seemingly perfect life. When her sorority announces their service project for the year as volunteering for the "Challenged Games," Carolyn finds herself at first appalled THEN awkwardly attracted to "Pumpkin," a "challenged" athlete with a speech impediment, mobility impairment and overprotective mother. Carolyn's perfect life falls apart as those around her protest this blossoming relationship. As her life falls apart, Carolyn begins to realize that the most beautiful person in her life may, in fact, be the least perfect.
"Pumpkin" is a pitch perfect dark comedy. In fact, it's so dark that there will be those who wouldn't remotely consider it comedy. There are strong tragic moments, blunt/offensive moral lessons and a near complete absence of political correctness. Ricci, who also served as one of the producers of the film, has just the right blend of yuppie preciousness and closet humanitarian in her role as Carolyn. The beauty of Ricci's performance is the complete lack of apparent motivations- Is this impulsiveness? Is this true love? Is this just common rebellion against authority? There are scenes that would indicate all three, and in the closing scene Ricci leaves all doors wide open with a look that could be interpreted in a variety of ways.
As "Pumpkin," Hank Harris offers a convincing and warm performance with wonderful mastery of the physical mechanics of playing a person with a disability. I'll admit that I was initially irritated that yet another film failed to utilize a disabled actor in such an obvious role, yet, I also had to acknowledge that until I looked Hill up I wasn't completely convinced he didn't have a disability. Yes, he was that good.
In supporting roles, Brenda Blethyn adds a compassion and dignity to the role of Pumpkin's mother, a woman who lives her life for her son YET may be the one thing that is holding him back the most. As clear as it was that she needed to let go, it was nearly impossible to not feel deeply for her as she watched her "little boy" grow up. Likewise, this film offered Dominique Swain the opportunity to shine for the first time in years as one of Carolyn's sorority sisters who goes through a number of changing attitudes herself. Finally, as Carolyn's tennis star boyfriend, Sam Ball balances his tragicomic character with balance and just the perfect blend of energy and attitude. On a fun note, if you look closely you may notice a Travolta in a smaller role as John's sister Margaret appears in the film.
Adam Larson Broder co-directed and wrote the script, and I give him major kudos for not holding back. I've never been one to seek sympathy for growing up with a disability. I've never really complained about the stares and the laughs and the comments that I face on a daily basis. "Pumpkin" is so perfectly spot on in showing what it is like on many levels to grow up with a serious disability that I found myself laughing and crying and just completely shocked that someone had the balls to show this stuff on film.
I will acknowledge that I have yet to find any of my friends who've seen this film that truly embraced it on the level that I do. Mostly, I've heard comments like "That would never happen." "People would never be like that." Yet, when I saw Pumpkin abandoned at the beach I was instantly taken back to the time when I was abandoned in a 50,000 seat auditorium because my "date" wanted a closer view of the concert and to visit with her friends. (despite the fact she was with me AND I had bought the tickets). Yep, this stuff really happens. That's far from the only scene that rang true. This script's dialogue, insight and plotline were offensive, objectionable and uncomfortable BUT remarkably true to life. Sadly, Broder has yet to direct or write another film since this 2002 production and had only directed "Dead Man on Campus" prior to this film.
This film, which I consider one of my absolute favorites, is a film I consider perfect in its imperfection. There are definite issues in the film, however, the film blends all the vital ingredients of a dark comedy and grinds them to stunning, almost painful perfection. "Pumpkin" is a shining example of innovative and bold independent filmmaking that challenges and entertains. "Pumpkin" is guaranteed to offend many, yet, the film offers appropriately sparkling performances, an insightful script, well-developed direction and a killer soundtrack with a production design that enhances the wonderfully enhances the varying moods of the film.
If I could stand, "Pumpkin" would get a standing ovation!
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic