According to the Institute on Disability, “If people with disabilities were a formally recognized minority group, at 19% of the population, they would be the largest minority group in the United States.” They would, in fact, be the largest minority group in the world, but in terms of representation, among many other issues, the world has failed them. With that in mind, I’m thrilled that Outfest has included Suzanne Guacci’s T11 Incomplete in its program this year, as it not only features disability in its main storyline, but Guacci herself is disabled.
Hal Hartley stalwart Karen Silas stars as Kate, a Home Health Nurse assigned to care for Laura (Kristen Renton), a paraplegic with a T11 Incomplete spinal cord injury. Laura lives with her overprotective brother Steve (Colin Bates), who wants the best for his sister but can’t seem to get past his own toxic masculinity. Karen, ten years sober, lives with her ailing cat (more on that later), and near her son Jack (Zachary Booth), his wife Elizabeth (a vivid Katy Sullivan) and grandson Brady (Maxim Swinton). With unresolved issues in their past, likely due to Kate’s alcoholism, Jack tries to keep his son away from his mom as much as possible. Jack has his own issues, as we see him cheating on Elizabeth right at the outset and clearly carries around a lot of resentment. I mention all of these characters since Guacci wants to present an ensemble of broken people, not just the one in the wheelchair. Everyone is incomplete.
Kate’s a caring nurse, but her unresolved issues manifest themselves in many ways, including the fact that she tends to steal money from her patients. Laura, who still grieves her girlfriend who died in the accident which left her in a state of paralysis, finds herself drawn to Kate. Eventually their connection cannot be denied, resulting in a fascinating love scene in which the roles of caregiver and patient appear to switch. Laura has awakened something in Kate, which in lesser hands would feel like a tired trope in LGBTQ+ cinema, but Guacci is a wonderfully subtle filmmaker. We experience Kate’s evolution through a myriad of micro-expressions as opposed to pages of dialogue. Silas gives a brilliant performance, among this year’s best, as a woman who realizes that life didn’t turn out the way she had planned it, and what the hell is she going to do about it? You feel her struggling with her failures every time she has to spend money or tries to fix the broken heel of her shoes. It’s rare that we get to experience the panic of a middle-aged woman trying to get through every day in one piece, and Silas brings that pain to quiet, vivid life without the usual showy scenes or overdoing it.
It helps that Silas has such a fantastic supporting cast. Renton excels as a sweet soul who feels like she can’t connect with the world anymore. She drinks to excess and rebuffs the advances of another woman (a nice turn by Lauren Russell). It’s a tricky role to mix such kindness with deep wells of anger and yearning, but Renton rises to the task. Booth and Bates also find the empathy in roles which could easily have slipped into villainy.
This film is a slow cooker about flawed individuals. While very slight on incident, it hones in on the humanity of people trying to navigate through tough circumstances in such a believable way. Unfortunately, late in the film, Laura has a speech which lays out its themes in a too obvious fashion, but I forgave this overwriting because of the beauty in the performances.
Now about that cat. I understand low budget filmmaking and the difficulty of working with kids and animals, and this film has both, but there’s no getting around the “American Sniper baby” issue. Guacci uses an obvious stuffed animal and added odd whimpering sounds to sell us on Kate’s dying pet. I would have stuck with a real one as the imposter took me right out of scenes which should have succeeded in building our fondness for Kate. Actually, I would have jettisoned the feline altogether. There’s a better solution to showing Kate’s good side than resorting to the late Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! tactics. Nevertheless, Guacci and company have delivered a fulfilling film for anyone who has felt like they drew a bad hand. I think, in this really bizarre time we find ourselves in, we can all relate.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
T11 Incomplete is currently playing as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival and can be accessed along with a filmmaker and cast Q&A until August 30th via OutfestLA2020.com .