The final chapter in Andrew Wiseman’s trilogy of documentaries about one Australian family, On Richard’s Side conveys what it’s like to be the carer of a child born with a complex intellectual disability and the unique challenges associated with getting older in such a situation. Where 1992’s Driving With Richard and 2001’s Wonder Boy were focused on the family as a whole, On Richard’s Side is concerned largely with Richard’s mother, Deirdre. Now at retirement age, and forced into the position of sole carer since the passing of Richard’s father, Charlie, Deirdre opens up about her experience with her son and how she makes sense of the contradictory nature of the situation, something she describes as equal parts challenging and joyful.
Deirdre is the perfect documentary protagonist: candid, expressive and contemplative. From the very first scene, we are thrust into the reality of daily living as a parent of a child with a disability. Deirdre delights in discovering the diaries that she kept until Richard turned six years old, and is thankful that she documented these memories—but soon the moment becomes bittersweet, as she stumbles upon the entry from when Richard had first successfully breastfed after a series of fraught attempts. Crying, she recalls how she felt cautiously optimistic in the moment: “Perhaps he will be alright.” In another context, a scene so frank and emotionally salient might feel exploitative, but throughout On Richard’s Side there is a real sense of relationship between the Wiseman and Deirdre, their decades-long working relationship typified by the filmmaker’s empathy for her, and his desire to tell both her’s and Richard’s stories.
Richard, being nonverbal, can’t tell us his side of the story, and this inability comes to characterise On Richard’s Side’s central conflict. Deirdre is caught in a dilemma: she is unable to provide Richard the care he needs, but can’t be sure if placing him in supported accommodation is something that her son wants. Deirdre describes the guilt she feels in this situation with an endearing sense of vulnerability: while she feels as though she might be doing Richard an injustice by moving him into a group home, she knows she cannot cope with the physical and emotional exhaustion that being his full-time carer fosters in her. This glimpse into not only the emotional reality of what it is like to be the parent of a child with a disability, but the day-to-day practicalities—like, what one does when your son hits puberty age and becomes physically larger and stronger than you?—is an enormous privilege to witness.
The film feels like a home movie in all of its messy, disorganised beauty, where screaming sits comfortably alongside the simple pleasure of watching Deirdre and Richard cuddle on the couch. Archival footage from the previous films is well interspersed with present-day footage: in one instance, when Richard is in hospital on his 35th birthday, footage alternates between Deirdre blowing up balloons for Richard in the hospital with her blowing up balloons for him as a baby, and again as a child. This masterful editing reminds us that the family’s struggle—and indeed, the struggle of all families where disability is involved—is a non-linear one, where stress, grief, trauma, happiness and growth combine to create an emotional rollercoaster for those involved.
Our attention is consistently directed towards the duality of Deidre’s pain and her love—to what she describes the “reality principle.” In Deidre’s experience, people want disability to be an inspiring thing, when the reality, in her words, is that it often comprises “horrendous times…very challenging times”. Charlie, meanwhile, describes the need for hope when faced with such burdens, and On Richard’s Side exemplifies the position of both parents. While it makes no attempt to shy away from the demands of parenting a child with a disability, it also manages to capture the hope—we see Richard making friends and coming out of his shell at the group home, and witness Deidre’s pleasure at this; we watch the community rally around him when Deidre calls, and see how people can come together to provide support.
In one of the film’s most striking moments, Deidre draws a comparison between the way Richard once engaged with the cameras—barely noticing their presence as a child—to the way he does now. He is endlessly curious about them in the present day, and extended shots of him gazing into the lens with a furrowed brow inspire in the viewer the sense of humanity that Deidre encourages in her activism and personal musings. Wiseman’s film effectively conveys her message: that people with disabilities have an intrinsic value to society by inspiring our compassion and empathy in others; they’re not defined by their disability, but by their unique personalities and capabilities. On Richard’s Side contains a powerful, sometimes difficult to digest message about the reality of disability by telling Deidre and Richard’s story with respect and empathy, while managing to whittle a sense of hope out of the turmoil. It may not be a particularly groundbreaking film from a cinematic perspective, but from a human one, it feels like it should be required viewing.