Luke White’s new documentary, Handsome, follows two brothers, Nick and Alex who visit various locations across the world talking to siblings where one of the two, like Alex, lives with Down’s Syndrome. Opening with a frank admission that Nick used to be ashamed of his brother when he was younger, he presents himself and audiences with the question of what it would be like if he became Alex’s full time carer. The documentary goes on to explore the various different pressures and experiences of those who already care closely for their brothers or sisters with Down’s Syndrome and shares their insights on their own relationships.
The film begins rather abruptly with a very rushed introduction to both Nick and Alex. Nick’s narration of the film starts almost immediately but sadly feels overly scripted and unnatural. This could be to make the film more accessible and easier to follow; however, it feels misplaced alongside the more natural conversations that make up the remaining majority of the film. It isn’t long before Nick and Alex embark on their road trip, despite audiences really not having had a chance to learn about either of them or their history in any great detail. Nonetheless it’s refreshing to get into the main body of the film so quickly.
The brothers travel from the sunny shores of Cornwall to the inner city of New York, onto the hustle and bustle of Mumbai and then finishing off their journey on the streets of Hanoi. The pair certainly cover a lot of area in their seeking to find the answers they’re searching for. However, it’s really only Nick who’s looking for these answers, Alex is just along for the ride and unfortunately rarely feels like the focus of the documentary that he deserves to be. Along the way they talk to a range of interesting and informed individuals. The testimony they collect is fascinating to listen to. The topics covered are many and include the pressures that those caring for a sibling with Down’s Syndrome face, experiences of abuse encountered by those with the condition, generational differences in approaches to care and debate regarding whether or not it’s important to explain to those with the condition what it actually means. These conversations are very compelling to listen to and they help to raise a lot of awareness about the condition and those who care for those with it. The wealth of wisdom from these individuals is wonderful to hear and their efforts in destigmatising the condition are admirable.
However, despite these positives, there are too many elements of the filmmaking process which are uncomfortable to witness. This is a real shame as the intentions behind the film were hopefully in the right place but unfortunately some of the execution doesn’t seem to quite line up with it. More often than not Alex and those others with Down’s Syndrome who feature here are pushed to the side. In a film about those living with the condition, or any film for that matter, there really isn’t any excuse for this and more should have been done to include them in the conversation. Understandably there are challenges that come with this but inclusivity is a must and especially so when the film is based around and features those who actually have Down’s Syndrome. It’s brilliant to see Alex enjoying the trip in several sequences and whilst the film does mention that his speech isn’t fully developed, there are several other people with Down’s Syndrome who feature that could have been included more.
Furthermore, in addition to the unfair treatment of those in the documentary the ending will really leave a poor taste in audiences’ mouths. Culminating in an even more abrupt way than it began, the documentary leaves viewers with the impression that Nick has learnt very little about what others have told him on this journey. Beyond this Alex’s privacy feels breached on more than one occasion and it feels wrong to feature some of the scenes that are included without his expressed and understood consent. He’s presented in a way that is unfair, feels exploitative and is simply just unnecessary.
Ultimately Handsome does well to raise awareness about the challenges and pressures for those caring with Down’s Syndrome, however featuring families from a greater variety of backgrounds would have enhanced this discussion. Furthermore, the film’s overall treatment of those people with the condition is not as inclusive or as considerate as it ought to be. Sidelining, exploiting or ignoring disabled people should never be an option and unfortunately Handsome is guilty of all three.
HANDSOME releases On Demand from August 30, 2021