Directed by: Blake Myers
Widge’s note: Please welcome Jorge de la Cova to the site, friend of our own Rob Levy. Rob mentioned this documentary in the latest Weekend Justice and, right on cue, here’s Jorge with a review. Excellent timing.
How do you solve a problem like Betsy?
On the one hand, Betsy Goodrich, subject of the documentary film Disabled But Able to Rock, is a highly functional middle-aged woman living with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. On the other, Betsy lives the fantasy life of an eight-year-old, showering her love on her numerous stuffed pets. Betsy herself describes the difference between her life and the life of “normals” as a heightening of her senses. Lights and sounds on steroids.
Longtime DragonCon attendees will recognize Betsy as the star of her own Karaoke Cabaret, a convention staple for the last twenty-three years. At its best, the cabaret is a celebration of life shepherded by a handi-capable woman empowering herself through passionate performances of her favorite songs. At its worst, the show walks the thin line between laughing with and laughing at a woman-child whose developmental disorders represent a vast array of challenges in her everyday life.
Throughout the film, Myers introduces his audience to the influences in Betsy’s life. Her loving cousins struggle with their protective urges regarding Betsy and Betsy’s own willfulness and fervent desire to live and love on her own terms. Betsy’s older brother, Jebby, is an adult living with developmental disabilities much more pronounced than Betsy’s. Even the director becomes a character in his own story, interviewing Betsy about her hopes and dreams, at times directing his questions in ways that make Betsy think about her actions in ways she likely had not previously considered.
One character in particular proves particularly difficult to figure out. Susan Goodrich, Betsy’s mother, vacillates between protecting Betsy from her own naivete and expressing her constant frustration with Betsy’s unpredictable behavior. From interviews in her kitchen, Mrs. Goodrich expounds on the difficulties of raising two children whose disabilities are ever-present and inform even the smallest minutiae of everyday life. From the interviews it becomes clear that she projects her frustrations on her children, and that Betsy’s family life exacerbates an already trying situation.
One of the most striking and heart-wrenching scenes in the movie involves the first time we see Betsy’s living environment. Mrs. Goodrich turns out to be an extreme hoarder. Piles of books, clothing, boxes and junk cover every surface of her house except for the claustrophobic paths carved out for walking through and between rooms. The metaphor of the physical clutter for the clutter and chaos in Betsy’s mind juxtaposes both perfectly. The audience is left wondering how anyone, “normal” or not, could thrive in such an environment.
Susan Goodrich dies during the filming of the documentary, profoundly affecting Betsy and her brother. Jebby, free of his mother’s constant supervision, thrives. He starts taking some care in his appearance, wearing new clothing, shaving, and cutting his hair. He gets his first taste of relative freedom and he likes it. Conversely, Betsy suffers from the change. She and Jebby move to a group home where Betsy is monitored more closely than ever before. Ironically, though her mother ruled Betsy’s life with an iron fist, she also had the wisdom (or resignation) to let Betsy experience life on her own terms. Betsy rides public transit, she holds a job, and she communicates with her fans on the Internet. At the group home, Betsy’s activities are monitored almost constantly.
To be sure, Betsy’s loneliness and naivete do make her a target. During one cringe-worthy interview, Betsy’s cousins recount an incident involving a “fan” wanting Betsy to fly out to Oklahoma to meet him. Her disappointment at not being allowed to travel juxtaposes Betsy’s burgeoning sexuality and loneliness (difficult to watch in a woman in her thirties) with her defenselessness in recognizing a clear threat. It is precisely while showcasing these uncomfortable moments that the film shines brightest.
When presenting a life defined by both fantasy and dour reality, triumph and tribulations, the film is a resounding success. Myers treats his potentially troublesome subject with sensitivity and taste. Much like its protagonist’s cabaret, the film transforms what could easily have devolved into a mockery of the disabled into a celebration of a life fully lived. With humor and profound humanity, Myers has culled from 250 hours of footage a story of a life written in ALL CAPS and punctuated by exclamation points!
The film is not perfect, however. Myers struggles with the limitations of the technology he is afforded by the film’s admittedly non-existent budget. He jumps from scene to scene trading cameras with alarming frequency. Yet, even this technique (if it could be called that) only reinforces the difficulties in Betsy’s life. Abrupt changes in resolution and grain only serve to underscore the chaos of a strong but troubled mind.
This is a story that deserves to be heard. Blake Myers has crafted a moving tribute to a remarkable woman whose indomitable spirit shines even through the darkest hours of her life. In presenting this life with dignity and honesty, Myers proves himself a true talent with remarkable wisdom, technique and humanity. Forgoing tentative first steps for bold strides, Disabled But Able to Rock showcases the abilities of a talent at the very beginning of a promising career.