Director: Rob Burnett
Cast: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts
Watch The Fundamentals of Caring online in the UK: Netflix UK
The Fundamentals of Caring, a new Netflix original about a man caring for a teenager with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), is an object lesson in how actors can elevate material. The opening scenes launch you headlong into the territory of Themed, where you are told that you have to care for yourself before you care for anyone else. The feeling is familiar. You swiftly realise that this is going to be closer in sentiment to Intouchables than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Yet you are won over to the tired concept thanks to two committed and engaging performances from Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts.
Rudd, as the carer trying to deal with personal tragedy, while learning the ropes of his job, is more restrained than usual, only occasionally showing flashes of his ad lib comedic skills. His charm is present and correct, but you can sense the sadness lingering behind it. Roberts plays Trevor with a kind of world-weary disdain, used as a front to hide his fear. Trevor’s love of pretending to die and his often impassive features bring to mind Bud Cort in Harold and Maude.
Rudd and Roberts sparking off one another creates the kind of natural, easy-going chemistry that most big-budget comedies would kill for. Even when Selena Gomez pops up as a sweary love interest for Trevor, the central relationship is still between these two emotionally reticent men.
It’s once they get going on a road trip that the film really begins to land emotionally and comedically. The aim of their journey is to find America’s worst roadside attractions, but frustratingly you only ever see two of them. Given that both moments are highlights in the narrative – a brief encounter with the world’s biggest bovine shows some of the film’s smartest editing, cutting between close-ups for a big laugh – it’s a shame that this nice conceit isn’t explored further. Instead, more time is given to Rudd and Roberts just talking about life.
Refreshingly, Trevor’s disease is not his defining characteristic and is never used for cheap dramatic plot beats. The conflicts here never feel contrived – the film is more interested in the rhythms of DMD than it is in everything that could go wrong. Instead, it finds drama in the emotional progress of the characters. An upsetting reunion near the end feels earned, because the film has never resorted to melodrama and the curiously triumphant finale – involving the most cathartic pee ever – is similarly hard-won.
Ultimately, The Fundamentals of Caring offers very little that is new in the road trip subgenre. Nonetheles, it’s refreshing to see a film about disability that is more interested in people than the rare disease. The people in question are lent real weight and authenticity by two great performances from actors who make the whole thing look effortless.
The Fundamentals of Caring is released on Netflix worldwide on Friday 24th June.
Read our interview with director Rob Burnett.