People with any form of intellectual disability have largely been portrayed on-screen by able-bodied actors. Some of the most popular films that are guilty of doing so are “Forrest Gump (1994),” “I Am Sam (2001),” “Silver Linings Playbook (2012)”, “Barfi! (2012),” “Rain Man (1988),” etc. As you can see, these movies have been widely lauded by critics and audiences alike, to the point that the conversation has shifted from inclusivity to artistic accuracy. And petitions to let people with intellectual disabilities play characters with intellectual disabilities are being thwarted with the sentiment that they’re “not good actors.” While there are many movies and shows to prove that that’s not the case at all, “Shadow (2022)” is the most recent and one of the best examples.
Directed by Bruce Gladwin, “Shadow” follows Simon, Scott, and Sarah, who are a trio of activists with intellectual disabilities. They are worried about the future impacts of artificial intelligence and think that it’s obviously going to harm able-bodied people. But it’s going to be particularly damaging for people with disabilities since they’re already a marginalized part of society. So, they held a town hall meeting to discuss it. However, for some reason, Simon goes into savior-complex mode. As Scott becomes a little too enamored with his power as a facilitator, he starts dismissing everyone’s opinions. Sarah, who feels she has been overlooked and underestimated all her life, explodes after being sidelined again. Now, whether they’ll be able to put their differences aside and fulfill the purpose of the meeting is what forms the crux of the story.
“Shadow” is part documentary and part narrative-driven. The central and supporting cast play themselves in the movie. That’s made obvious in the listing, of course. But it’s further established in the opening minutes when you see people practicing a piece of dialogue in front of a camera (which you’re seeing through another camera). And then, the final version of that dialogue is integrated into the linear narrative. It happens again when Simon is about to give a history lesson about how society has treated people with intellectual disabilities. Cinematographer and editor Rhian Hinkley dollies the camera forward, bringing Simon into focus as he speaks his line. However, Scott thinks he needs to do another take. So, the camera resets back to its original position, and you see the retake instead of just seeing the final take like you do in every other movie. In doing so, Gladwin advances Scott’s character as this over-assertive person while presenting Simon’s flaws on the proverbial table.
The elements in Shadow’s narrative and its overall presentation are hugely educational. There’s a massive chunk of the movie that’s dedicated to talking about how people with disabilities were experimented upon in Iowa, the exploitation of women with intellectual disabilities in the Irish Magdalene Laundries controversy, and how a Hasbro branch in Ireland subcontracted said laundries to assemble and package their games. It’s tied back to the central topic of the dangers of A.I. with the through line that people (or any entity for that matter) who think that they are superior to a section of society will always look to oppress them. So, if A.I. is allowed to do its thing, it’s eventually going to enslave human beings. But the hilarious devolution into a power struggle between Sarah, Scott, and Simon acts as a great counterpoint to Hollywood movies that have depicted people with disabilities as either geniuses or people who aren’t able to form coherent thoughts. It shows that people exist between those two extremes and why they need to be represented more.
Performance-wise, it’s really tough to judge how much of what we’re seeing is acting and how much of it is unscripted riffing between the activists. Which, in and of itself, is a testament to the writing by the screenwriters and the effortlessness with which the people on-screen carry themselves. Sarah, Scott, and Simon are undoubtedly the linchpins of “Shadow.” Simon is measured throughout the film, which gives his eventual realization about where the whole meeting is going, the melancholic feeling it wants to achieve. Sarah and Scott are given a lot of room to breathe, and they utilize it fully. The whole bit where Scott gets locked out and then has to find his way back to the meeting (while being flipped off by Mark because he was condescending to him earlier) is undoubtedly comedic gold. This again helps the film and the filmmakers to double down on the point that they’re trying to make about the representation of people with intellectual disabilities in mainstream discourse.
In conclusion, “Shadow” is one of the significant movies of the year. Those who are for inclusivity and don’t partake in the heinous act of othering people who are, for the lack of a better term, atypical will find echoes of their belief system in this film. Those who are fighting for the same will definitely come out of it with a sense of reassurance that they are walking in the right direction. But it’s those who do not fall into either of those categories, who are ignorant towards disabilities and think they’ve been aptly represented by Hollywood, who will probably have a profound revelation. And even if they fail to understand how urgently people with disabilities need equity and equality of opportunity, well, at least they’ll walk away with knowledge of how this community has been historically exploited.
“Shadow” is a 2022 Drama Film directed by Bruce Gladwin. The film had its screening at the SXSW film festival.