Film Review: Intelligent Lives

'Intelligent Lives' offers a compelling, unshowy account of three people with disabilities embarking on huge steps towards greater independence.
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Pursuing a forthright advocacy mission on behalf of people with disabilities, Dan Habib’s compassionate, informative documentaryIntelligent Lives follows Micah, Naomie and Naieer, each of whom has some degree of intellectual impairment, as they dive deeper into the adventure that is adulthood.

Habib frames the portrait of his subjects with the narration and testimony of Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper, whose son Jesse had cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Cooper describes how he and his wife, the film’s co-executive producer, Marianne Leone, became advocates for people with disabilities through their experience of raising Jesse and having to fight to see him included, and not marginalized, in his school and community. Habib succinctly, if a bit superficially, traces the chronology of the ongoing struggle in the world at large, highlighting efforts to integrate people with disabilities fully into society.

Cooper and his wife were determined not to shunt their son out of sight into some poorly run institution, but to see him lead a full life. With admirable sensitivity, the film relates the role of parents in either helping an impaired child or holding them back, whether they’re embarking on a new job or a new relationship.

But the focus here is on another profound means of holding children back, the use of I.Q. testing. Intelligent Lives builds its story around the point, as Cooper elaborates, that no attempt to measure intelligence can predict a person’s value or ability to contribute meaningfully to the world.

Again, the film offers an abridged chronology of the big picture, running down the sorry history of how I.Q. testing has been used to marginalize and/or demonize populations and, worse, how those with intellectual disabilities have been mistreated and abused. The reality of how things were, and how they might still be for some who test low, is discussed but delivered with little emotional impact. The big-picture details, in general, feel rendered with not nearly the same carefulness that’s applied to showcasing Naieer, Naomie and Micah. However, it’s appropriate in this case that their voices should speak more loudly than the filmmaker’s.

And none speaks louder, in regards to self-advocacy, than Micah, 30, who describes getting a glimpse once at test results that stated he had an I.Q. of 40. Yet, he’s shown to be a quick wit and quite a character. He recently moved from Michigan to attend Syracuse University’s InclusionU program of college courses for people with disabilities. He also moved away from home to assert his independence, but he’s not trying to go it completely alone. He has a housemate who’s happy to help him finesse his OK Cupid profile, and he attends Circle of Support meetings, a sort of group session where Micah can get feedback from faculty and student advisors.

Support is key, and, as Micah points out in a presentation to class, it should be respectful support. Through him, the film shows how far a determined, intelligent person can go, regardless of any disability. It’s a joy to watch Micah, with one swipe of a pen, take over full responsibility for managing his health and medical decisions for the first time in his life. And it’s inspiring to hear him speak up for his sweetheart Meghan, upon meeting her parents and learning that they intend to extend their legal guardianship of their adult daughter. He wants to make sure Meghan “knows how to advocate for herself,” he says.

He’s also a charming flirt, and clearly a best-case scenario on the spectrum of people with intellectual disabilities. As the film follows Naieer, diagnosed with severe autism, navigate his senior year of high school, and Naomie, who has Down syndrome, training for her first paid job, they both encounter light roadblocks that engender concerns about less rosy outcomes. In a quietly powerful moment, Naieer’s dad considers racial bias as just one of those concerns, as he watches his son, a tall black man with a sweet disposition and a feisty temper, stride off into a world that might shoot first, before asking questions about his significant impairment.

The specter of a worst-case scenario looms heavily, but doesn’t diminish the mood of optimism that permeates the film and its soundtrack of upbeat, previously released songs by singer-rapper Matisyahu. At one point, Micah shares that it’s his faith in himself that led him to try something new, and that gives him confidence that things will work out for him. As captured wonderfully in the film, he clearly also is one very smart guy—he knows exactly how to not answer when Meghan’s dad asks who he’s voting for in the 2016 presidential election.