There’s a distinct quaver in actor Chris Cooper’s voice as he narrates Intelligent Lives, and it’s easy to see why. Dan Habib’s documentary, which Cooper also executive produced, deals with a topic that’s particularly personal for the actor. The film advocates for integrating intellectually disabled individuals into a society that has stigmatized them for many years. Cooper’s son Jesse, born with cerebral palsy, was nearly the victim of such discrimination himself. But thanks to the determination of Cooper and his wife Marianne, Jesse went to public schools and became an honors student, poet and activist before he died at age 17.
The documentary profiles three young people whose lives would also have been decidedly different not so long ago. Naieer, 17, attends a Massachusetts public high school and seems headed for a career in visual arts. Naomie, 25, who spent years at a Rhode Island vocational school that was found to be exploiting its students for cheap labor, now works in the state capital building, attends beauty school and aspires to supporting herself financially. And 34-year-old Micah studies at Syracuse University, where he works as a teacher’s assistant. He’s also determined to find a girlfriend and eagerly peruses OkCupid in search of one.
Important and inspiring.
The film’s subjects are engaging and endearing, coping with their struggles with optimism and good humor. They have the loving support of friends and family, such as Naomie’s brother, who closely watches out for her, and Naieer’s parents, who worry that, as a young African-American man who is awkward in social situations, he may accidentally run into trouble with the police.
As with so many documentaries these days, Intelligent Lives mainly focuses on personal stories to make its points, and it does so in moving compelling fashion. But the film also provides a brief primer on the history of the country’s treatment of intellectually disabled people. It offers a severe critique of the still standard IQ test, which is widely considered to be inaccurate and hopelessly outdated. And it outlines notable events surrounding the subject, from the bad (the eugenics era of the late 19th and early 20th century, which supposedly inspired Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution) to the good (the 1990 passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which guaranteed equal access and opportunities). Much progress on the issue was made during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who had a personal connection to the problem: His sister Rosemary underwent a disastrous lobotomy at age 23 and was institutionalized for the rest of her life.
But even with the interesting historical and individual stories, the doc would have benefited from a more expansive focus. It feels limited at times, both in its small number of personal profiles and the sketchiness with which it delivers the necessary context. There’s no denying, however, its passion and conviction. Nor that it has a valuable message to impart in these more enlightened times in which many people with intellectual disability are nonetheless still the victims of mistreatment and prejudice. This is a topic that demands attention, and Intelligent Lives is a film that demands to be seen.
Production company: Like Right Now Films
Director-producer-director of photography: Dan Habib
Screenwriters: Jody Becker, Dan Habib
Narrator: Chris Cooper
Executive producers: Amy Brenneman, Chris Cooper, Marianne Leone Cooper
Editor: James Rutenbeck
Composer: Paul Brill