The lesson that THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING opens with is “ALOHA,” an acronym standing for Ask, Listen, Observe, Help, Ask Again. These are the titular fundamentals given to Ben (Paul Rudd), a retired writer trying to cope with his own loss by learning to care for others. It’s also the roadmap for the trip we are taken on in writer/director Rob Burnett’s adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. As the course instructs Ben that he will be unable to take care of others unless he can take care of himself, the film telegraphs from an early stage that he will be the one that needs just as much caring on this predictable, albeit disarmingly warm, road movie.
Fretting mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) hires the fledgling caregiver Ben to look after her son Trevor (Craig Roberts), a wheelchair-bound 18-year old who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Having recently moved from the UK, they rarely leave the house and stick to a set routine. At least until Ben convinces Elsa to take Trevor on a roadtrip to see various roadside attractions, and get him out of his comfort zone. Along the way they connect with the rebellious Dot (Selena Gomez) and the heavily pregnant Peaches (Megan Ferguson). The journey is a straightforward one of Ben dealing with his own ennui, triggered by the death of his own son years before and the divorce that he is just “not ready” to sign. It doesn’t take a six-week course in caregiving to work out how this will end.
There is nothing subtle about THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING, with every major childhood trauma dragged out of the cupboard. Trevor has an estranged father. Dot has lost her mother. Peaches’ husband is serving overseas. Each of these simply serve as a mirror to Ben’s own pain, most of which presents as a series of emotional power plays between Ben and Trevor. The latter perpetually tries to shock Ben with his off-colour jokes about wanting a blow job from Katy Perry before he dies, or feigning choking at various junctures. “Have you ever considered I’m just a prick without the wheelchair?” asks Trevor. Ben in turn refuses to take his defensive mechanism as he readily yells at the boy, one of the film’s attempts to cut through all the treacle. There is a wry sense of humour to many scenes, and it’s not a beat all viewers can dance to, but this gives the film some of its innate charm.
Performances are solid, with Gomez in particular giving a mature turn off the back of Spring Breakers. Submarine‘s Roberts is not quite the precocious wit he was in Richard Ayoade’s film, and Rudd delivers a reliable laid-backness. Yet the production is an odd affair in the end, with some pretty scenery marred by odd editing in crucial moments. There’s a birth sequence intercut with flashbacks to the death of Ben’s son that is just weird, both saccharine and disturbing at the same time. The ultimate ending is tacked on and in search of a solid conclusion, and proves it was Rudd’s arc after all. Nevertheless, there’s an oddly addictive charm to Burnett’s film, and it’s worth spending a little time with.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING released around the world from 24 June 2016 on Netflix.
2016 | US | DIR: Rob Burnett | WRITERS: Rob Burnett | CAST: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez | DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix | RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes | RATING: ★★★