Reality TV really doesn't need help making fun of itself. Like a satiric version of a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the limits of plausibility has caused the medium to manipulate the product into more and more perplexing - and preposterous - positions. So if someone told you that the latest exercises in televised authenticity will revolve around finding the best pirate, the newest superhero, or the most talented handicapped person, you probably wouldn't flinch. Oddly enough, two of those three are actually on their way to a boob tube near you. The third forms the foundation for one of the funniest, most critical comedies about the business of show ever conceived. Like Lollilove in 2004, Special Needs is an amazing new mock documentary, announcing the multitalented brilliance of first time filmmaker Isaak James. It is destined to be one of 2007's best.
At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy spoofing. James - who wrote, directed, stars, and probably prepared the craft services - appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and 'artificial' human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us nervous and uncomfortable. We expect the thwarting of convention, the tweaking of PC paradigms, and some good old fashioned vulgar funny business. It will all be in bad taste, but the current envelope pushing conceit of motion picture comedy readily supports such obvious offensiveness. Just ask the Farrelly Brothers. But believe it or not, this is not where James and his clever cast actually go. Instead, we are introduced to an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. Special Needs does employ the services of several handi-capable individuals, and all of them single-handedly steal the show. During an open audition for potential participants, we are introduced to a paranoid schizophrenic lounge singer, a determined deaf actor, a genial blind man, a wheelchair bond vixen and a no bullshit dwarf. Initially, they remain on the fringes. But once the callbacks come, James gives each individual their three dimensional setpiece moment to shine.
The clear breakout star here is someone called Killer P. A bad ass gansta rapper with cerebral palsy, he uses an aggressive thug life stance to shelter criticism over his obvious physical limitations. The result is a foul mouthed masterwork, a tripwire Tupac locked in an equally potent personal fortress. He's a classic character (or a great actual find) and almost instantly demands a solo feature all his own. Every moment he's on screen is worth savoring and repeating. He's gutbustingly great. He also illustrates part of Special Needs' motion picture mystery. If he was discovered by James and brought to the project, then this filmmaker has a clear eye for flawless idiosyncratic talent. On the other hand, if he's merely a handicapped actor putting on a front, then James is a genius for creating such a character, and P (real name, Keith Jones) is equally brilliant at bringing him to life. For this one element alone, Special Needs deserves unlimited praise. But there is more to what's going on here than outlandish personalities and a sly spoof of reality TV. In fact, it's safe to say that this film really isn't 'about' a potential series centering on the handicapped. Instead, it's about the individuals involved, from Piece's high-strung hubris to Laura Wilcox's self loathing meanness.
Yet none of this touches on what really makes Special Needs shine - its brave sense of humor. Allowing the handicapped actors onscreen to hold their own, to be both the brunt and providers of many of the jokes, keeps the comedy fresh and honorable. Even when Killer P is hit with the N-word, his hilarious reactions take the sting out of the sentiment. In fact, that's this film's major motion picture contribution. In recent years, off balance disasters like The Ringer have tried to temper the mentally and physically challenged with something akin to soiled saintliness. Sure, they're crude and rude, but they also have a built-in buttress against such standard human behavior that gives them a moralistic pass. Here, James simply let's them be people, and it's the everyday depiction that makes this movie so clever. By being both mired and motivated, capable and curtailed, what could easily become symbols instead turn into substantive comic characters. That James leaves the caricaturizing to the rest of the supposedly normal individuals at the center of the story makes Special Needs something extraordinary indeed. It will definitely make a considered appearance come end of the year awards/acknowledgment time.
Special Needs is a certified cinematic homerun, an instant candidate for independent comedy of the year and another terrific title in Troma's growing collection of outsider gems (the company will release their DVD version sometime later this year). It easily earns a Highly Recommended rating. Those expecting a mean-spirited marginalizing of the disabled will be greatly disappointed, while others wanting the mindless purveyors of reality rot to really get theirs will be doubled over in sidesplitting delight. That he managed to salvage something that could have been a disaster is not Isaak James' greatest accomplishment here. No, the real revelation is his ability to thwart convention while carefully walking across all the formulaic necessities mandated to make a clever motion picture. Along with proving yet again that mainstream moviemakers have completely forgotten how to handle humor, Special Needs argues that the future of film lies somewhere beyond the fringe. Any cinephile who visits there will be wonderfully rewarded.