(Reviewed by Stephen Snart).
Released quietly on a handful of screens in select markets this past June, Quid Pro Quo offers the potentially provocative story of a journalist who uncovers a group of able-bodied people who pretend or desire to be disabled. But writer/director Carlos Brooks handles the subject matter in a somber and cautious manner, perhaps even to the point of indolence. It’s been compared to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) but – for better or worse – features none of the seediness or shock of that film.
The lead character, Isaac (played by able-bodied actor Nick Stahl from HBO’s Carnivale, is himself a paraplegic. As a boy, he was the victim of a car accident that proved fatal for his mother and father. He’s been a wheelchair-user ever since and while that hasn’t impeded his career as a radio journalist, it has become an obstacle for his love life.
His girlfriend, a fellow paraplegic, recently left him on the grounds that every relationship should have at least one able-bodied person in it.
Into his life walks Fiona (Vera Farmiga), an art conservator who gives him a tip on a news story about people who go to hospitals and request illicit amputations. Through this he learns of a support group for people known as ‘wannabes’ – able-bodied people with a psychological desire to be physically disabled. The technical term the movie identifies for their condition is Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) – a mostly accurate assessment, although it refers more to people who desire amputations specifically as opposed to paralysis.
After initially acting coy, Fiona admits she too has always harbored a desire to be wheelchair-dependent. Fiona, a beautiful and alluring cipher, quickly becomes a physical and sexual attraction to Isaac and a subtle contrast between his previous relationship and his new interest is established.
"I just want to understand" is a phrase repeatedly proclaimed by the lead characters of Quid Pro Quo. At the outset, Isaac exhibits a curiosity about why someone would feel a need to be disabled rather than feeling offended or repulsed by their condition. But Fiona’s consummate desire to learn what it feels like to be disabled and her stress on her psychological lack eventually leads Isaac to grow weary of her pursuit. "I don’t know what f---ed up thing happened to you; you don’t deserve to be paralyzed." "Oh, but you do?" she retorts.
Such provocative exchanges flitter around during the film’s first half but an O. Henry-like twist (handled with none of the literary great’s charm or wit) half-way through counteracts much of the film’s intriguing elements and momentarily veers dangerously close to the "obsessive quest for a cure" plots that haunted disability-themed films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Even more destructive is the conclusion which gives a precise (too-precise) reason for Fiona’s psychological state, the details of which negate much of the theoretical pondering engaged in during the first half.
Still, certain nuggets of provocation are raised in the film that could prove ripe for discussion. I get the sense the film is playing it too safe to really dig at any underlying issues. Its timidity also affects the film on a plot level, causing it to unfold like a film noir without any bite. Not that it would have been better served in the form of something as explicit and aggressive as Cronenberg’s Crash but Quid Pro Quo could have benefitted from some more confrontation toward the viewer.
In particular, the scenes at the support group are far too short and uninvolved. The only other character with a similar psychological condition to Fiona that we get to see at length is presented as a sane and rational middle-aged man who speaks of the disadvantages of his state and how he wishes he didn’t have it. It would have been more interesting if the film had spent longer with the rest of the support-group characters whom are only glimpsed at tantalizingly, and surveyed a wider spectrum of people with the condition. As it is, the film culminates with the pact assumption that guilt is the sole conduit for BIID.
Almost as an act of rectification, the DVD special features contains a ten-minute excerpt from the 2007 documentary Whole which can be purchased at http://www.whole-documentary.com/main.html or from Amazon at www.amazon.com. To learn more about Body Integrity Identity Disorder, visit the following sites:
Stephen Snart is a freelance film critic whose writing has appeared in The L Magazine, TheCinemaSource.com and Not Coming to a Theater Near You. He holds a BA in Cinema Studies from New York University and a MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. Links to his reviews can be found at fluxingphilosophic.blogspot.com.