[This is a re-post of my The Fundamentals of Caring review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The movie premieres on Netflix today.]
The Fundamentals of Caring is a nice movie. It doesn’t break the mold, it doesn’t veer too far off the well-worn path, and it certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the “post-trauma Sundance dramedy” genre that’s become a bit of a hallmark of the prestigious film festival. But sometimes tried and true is okay, provided you’ve got at least some sort of secret weapon up your sleeve. In the case of writer/director Rob Burnett’s Fundamentals of Caring, the film coasts on the charisma and chemistry of its two leads, Paul Rudd and Submarine star Craig Roberts, careening through cliché after cliché to result in a film that is cute but ultimately forgettable.
Based on Jonathan Evison’s book The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, the film follows a man named Ben who, following the death of his son and impending dissolution of his marriage, decides to become a full-time caregiver. His first assignment is a foul-mouthed, wise-cracking teenaged boy named Trevor (Craig Roberts), who suffers from Duchene Muscular Dystrophy and is confined to a motorized wheelchair. He is a creature of habit who relies on a number of machines and medicines to keep him as healthy as can be, and his mother (played by Jennifer Ehle) warns Ben that he is a highly difficult subject for any caregiver, let alone a first-timer.
What ensues is pretty much exactly what you think. Ben and Trevor at first have a somewhat contentious relationship, but once Ben shows that he can give insults as easy as he can take them, Trevor comes to respect and possibly even like him. Trevor has an obsession with rare landmarks, and so Ben decides that it’s time to finally take Trevor away from home for the first time ever and road-trip it from Seattle to the Midwest to visit the “World’s Deepest Pit,” encountering a number of colorful characters along the way—including a hitchhiker named Dot, played by Selena Gomez in a pleasantly salty performance.
It takes a beat to move past the fact that there’s no way Trevor’s mother wouldn’t accompany her son on the trip given the severity of his disease, but such a device is necessary to allow the relationship between Ben and Trevor to bear thematic fruit. Indeed, Ben’s true motive for taking Trevor under his wing is literally spelled out within the context of the film despite the fact that it’s beyond obvious, but again, it’s somewhat forgivable thanks to Rudd’s performance.
If this all sounds a bit trite, well, it is. The film is beyond predictable, landing every single beat you’re expecting it to land, and yet it’s all made engaging and enjoyable thanks to the warmth and rascal-like humor of Rudd and a funny, complicated turn by Roberts. The two make for a swell comedic pairing, and the moments in which they’re left to their own devices to improvise and play off of one another are the highlights of the film. Again, you know exactly where this movie is going, but that doesn’t really seem to matter too much when Rudd and Roberts are on the screen.
Rudd has done some tremendous work over the years when he’s been able to break out of the “charming romcom leading man” mold (which he poked fun at brilliantly in They Came Together), and one can understand the allure of playing a character like Ben. The script leaves much to be desired in the way of actual emotional impact, however, but Rudd does an admirable job of selling scenes we’ve seen many, many times before. Roberts, meanwhile, brings a prickliness to the character of Trevor that’s lacking in other similarly-premised films, making his arc much more interesting than it might have been in another performer’s hands.
The film has already been acquired by Netflix for distribution, and it’s easy to see a movie like this making for a perfect match with the streaming service. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but thanks to the talent of Rudd and Roberts, and Burnett’s ability to capture their chemistry onscreen, The Fundamentals of Caring is pleasant enough viewing experience.