Too often, cinema and television use characters with genetic conditions as a cameo plot device — think of the family’s secret shame sibling or the odd-one-out in a high school. It’s refreshing then to see The Grown-Ups, Maite Alberdi’s documentary set in a Chilean school for people with Down’s Syndrome, a film that doesn’t patronise nor infantilise its subjects and instead gives us a deeper look into a group in society that is often ignored.
Though there are several students in this school, Alberdi hones in on four of them: Anita, Rita, Ricardo and Andres. They are all over 45 years old, and have been attending the same school for approximately 40 years, where their days consist of working in the catering kitchen, learning household skills in a makeshift studio apartment, and taking lessons in how to be a ‘conscious adult.’1. But for some of them, the challenge of baking pastries and making beds has long passed and they feel stagnant in their lives.
Anita is the brightest presence from the get-go. She’s confident in her desire to get out from under her parents’ roof, to escape the drudgery of her everyday school routine — even if these structures are in place as protective measures for her. Anita is in love with Andres, but he too still lives with his family; they want to get married and build a life together, but both the law2 and their families stand in the way.
Voted class president, Ricardo, meanwhile, is the studious, managerial type. He’s keen to save money and one day own a home, and supplements his work at the school with a job at an aged care centre. Watching Ricardo count his measly wages — that amount to little more than a child’s pocket money — is a grim insight into the exploitation that’s rampant in this realm, and a devastating reminder of how far off his dream truly is.
The film astutely demonstrates how Down’s Syndrome is, like all human conditions, something that varies across the spectrum. The aforementioned trio seem to have more developed senses of responsibility and self-ownership than their other coworker, Rita, who’s sweet and enthusiastic but is unaware of social expectations and has a deep affection for Barbie dolls.
The charm of Alberdi’s documentary lies in its intimate observation. The film eschews BBC-style commentary in favour of letting the audience draw their own conclusions, and as a result we’re alternatively moved, delighted, and angered by the subjects, their actions, and the discrimination they face.
As The Grown-Ups progresses, the focus draws in on Anita and Andres’ relationship, and its inherent complications as they vie for an independence that will not be given to them. Alberdi exercises great restraint here, allowing the characters’ faces to speak for themselves; we’re privy to moments of great sadness and bittersweet affection. The tenderness between Anita and Andres love has an unexpected impact, especially when the obstacles to their relationship become realistic — and final.
Alberdi immerses us in this world, using long static shots to capture the nuances of the various personalities in the school courtyard, or to explore the students’ dynamics in the kitchen. Pablo Valdes’ cinematography is bright and crisp, giving the film’s lighter moments, like a birthday cake surprise, a lovely visual buoyancy. Only the film’s music counts as a misstep — an insistent, whimsical tinkering that runs the risk of turning it all into a cutesy special.
The Grown-Ups is a delight, made with affection and nuance by a filmmaker who doesn’t patronise her characters. In drawing us into the world of her subjects and and allowing us to experience their aspirations and concerns, Alberdi has made a film in which — finally — people with Down’s Syndrome are given the spotlight, instead of being cast aside.