Film Review: Becoming Bulletproof

Beautifully shot and scored doc about a creative coalition's annual filmmaking project starring disabled performers, it's a rare film about the disabled that shows them as the regular folks they are, and the disciplined creativity of which they're capable
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Documentaries involving people with disabilities—and before you say anything, that's the term those in this movie use themselves—sometimes fall into sanctimoniousness or well-intentioned patronizing. There are exceptions, such as Murderball (2005), but that's about disabled athletes and they're a breed unto themselves. Normal, everyday disabled people in documentaries often find themselves framed as noble, inspiring spirits. And this reviewer, who has a quadriplegic cousin, knows that both the athletes and the saints are outliers—that mostly, people with Down syndrome or other developmental issues feel, dream, aspire and want sex, love and rock ’n’ roll exactly the same as anyone else. Exactly the same.

Becoming Bulletproof gets that. A chronicle of the nonprofit Zeno Mountain Farm and the making of its 35-minute movie Bulletproof (2012), starring disabled nonprofessional actors, it gives equal voice to the disabled and the abled alike, and the process shows everyone working at roughly the same level. Like Chris Burke, the actor with Down syndrome who played a character with Down syndrome on the 1989-1993 ABC family drama "Life Goes On," the community that gathers in Los Angeles each year to make a movie is high-functioning, but their disabilities by and large aren't minor: A.J. Murray, on whom the film focuses, has cerebral palsy and cannot walk, and relies on others to lift him from his bed into his wheelchair, bathe him and feed him. Another, Judi Moscariello, has a physical disability that among other things makes speaking difficult for her, with her words sometime hard to discern; otherwise, she seems your basic, average person.

The star of this year's movie is Jeremy Vest, who plays Old West gunfighter Bulletproof Jackson. He suffers from Williams syndrome, in which learning disabilities and development delays are balanced by highly social personalities, good verbal abilities and inherent musical abilities—he plays more than passable piano and drums by ear.

We hear directly from these three and many other performers, including the twenty-something Eric Criss and Elizabeth McCurry, who play coal miners and are a couple in real life. Each disabled person is paired with an abled one, and they form bonds as the same groups come back year after year. One abled performer, Laura Davis, has been paired with Moscariello for eight years and says the two of them finish each other's sentences. The Vermont-based Zeno's founders, brothers Will and Peter Halby and their respective wives Vanessa and Ila, are upbeat but not in a smarmy way, and say convincingly that they are neither "do-gooders" nor religious. Zeno had previously shot essentially unreleased films such as the soap-operatic Sweetwater Tides, a pirate musical, a superhero film, a movie about time travelers, one about "the greatest song ever written," and a horror movie.

But Zeno wanted to make "a real bona-fide movie" to take to festivals, and what we see of director Peter Lazarus’ work, in excerpts, is a beautifully shot, stylish western, framed with modern-day segments. Seeing the thoroughly professional way the Zeno filmmakers treat their actors—never talking down to them, and expecting them to do good work—is, and I hate to use this word, inspirational. So is the fact that no one pays, nor is anyone paid, to be part of the Zeno community. These people walk the walk—and under the smooth eye and crystalline photography of the documentary's director-cinematographer, Michael Barnett, they film the film.

Click here for cast and crew information.