Film Review: Bad Hurt

Despite its “social problem” elements, 'Bad Hurt' is never preachy or politicized, but rather an artfully drawn film about a working-class family grappling with a drug-addicted ex-vet son and a mentally and physically challenged daughter.
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At first glance, Bad Hurt is yet another oppressive, difficult-to-watch slice-of-life drama. Set at the end of the 20th century, the film centers on a downtrodden Staten Island-based Irish-American family that takes “dysfunctional” to new heights. Headed by matriarch Elaine (Karen Allen), the Kendall clan includes her alcoholic Vietnam vet husband Ed (Michael Harney); mentally challenged daughter DeeDee (Iris Gilad), suffering from a catastrophic neurological disorder; and a son, Kent (Johnny Whitworth), a drug-addicted and PTSD-afflicted Gulf War vet who spends his time lying in bed writhing in pain waiting for his next fix (legal or illegal).

Another son, Todd (Theo Rossi), is functioning but profoundly disappointed in his own failed dreams. Like his father and brother, he wanted to serve in the military—that’s a highly valued goal in the family—but for whatever reasons didn’t cut it. He now sets his sights on a career as a policeman, but that doesn’t seem promising either. His brutish father makes it clear Todd doesn’t have what it takes. Todd, who still lives at home, makes his living driving aged and disabled vets from place to place in a small bus.

Written by Michael Kemble and Jamieson Stern and directed by Kemble, the movie is based on Kemble’s autobiographical play Bad Hurt on Cedar Street (four Ovation nominations), but nonetheless feels overstated, at least initially. The family in Bad Hurt is simply too miserable. In fact, early on one assumes Elaine and Ed are running a group home for the mentally and physically challenged. It takes a while to realize these are their adult children.

That said, the film gets under your skin. It’s ultimately memorable, with some deeply affecting, haunting scenes and subtly layered performances. Allen, identified with such iconic films as Animal House and Raiders of the Lost Ark, is terrific as the quietly determined, compassionate and tormented Elaine. Harney is fine too as the imploding ex-vet, Rossi’s Theo is every bit the sensitive lost soul, attempting to serve as family peacemaker, and Gilad, making her film debut, is a revelation.

Several narrative strands run concurrently, though the main story focuses on Elaine and Ed’s crisis surrounding DeeDee, who has just been kicked out of the only daycare center available to her that offers her a “sheltered workplace” (clients are employed making boxes), along with a place to go on a daily basis. But DeeDee is in love with Willy (Calvin Dutton), an almost equally challenged patient at the facility, and unable to contain her non-verbal agitation in his presence, she has become a disruptive influence in the group. The parents beg the bureaucrats to give their daughter another chance, but they refuse.

At home, DeeDee requires constant care, from feeding to bathing to dressing, and Elaine tends to all her needs. It is an exhausting and emotionally untenable situation on many fronts, though Elaine is determined to make it work while Ed, on the other hand, believes his daughter needs to be institutionalized. Still, he is clearly anguished as he checks out a local psychiatric ward that might house DeeDee. Devoid of financial resources, Ed and Elaine have no way out. Whatever they do, they’ll lose.

They’re also up against a wall with their son Kent, who has depleted all his pain-killing meds (before the renewal date) and is in withdrawal. Elaine’s doctor will not re-prescribe the medications at that point, or offer any alternatives; he actually hangs up on her. Kemble vividly evokes a claustrophobic universe defined by bureaucratic rules and poverty. The film subtly touches on other hot-button issues as well, most notably the question of how a family—and by extension, the culture at large—should handle a severely challenged young couple who are in love. There are no easy answers and mercifully Kemble does not pitch simple-minded bromides.

Likewise, Kemble’s treatment of the military and its significance in this family’s life is complex. Serving honorably in the armed services is an expression of patriotism, bravery and self-worth. But for these characters, the reality of their experiences, shrouded in omissions, half-truths and lies, has not measured up. The festering secrets are devastatingly destructive to those who have served and cast a ripple effect on everyone else in the Kendall universe. Without revealing what happens, there is a funeral scene here, dealing with military sendoffs and the lack thereof, that is a stunner.

Despite its bleak subject matter and “social problem” trappings, Bad Hurt far surpasses those limitations and is artfully conceived and deftly crafted. Gabrael Wilson’s production design and Igor Kropotov’s cinematography deserve credit for bringing to life a snowy, depressed pre-Christmas community that Todd aptly describes as “a forgotten place.”

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