A film where a main character is disabled should raise a lot of red flags for anyone who understands the struggles the disabled community faces in achieving accurate representation in popular media, so I feel it necessary to say something right upfront about The Fundamentals of Caring: Trevor, who is diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, is a pretty decent character. He is not a perfect representation; a major part of his character arc involves a snarky sullenness over his lack of mobility that doesn’t entirely make sense given that he was diagnosed at age three, and he is portrayed by Craig Roberts, an able-bodied actor. That being said, Trevor is a character with agency, strengths, weaknesses, and goals that are his own and aren’t entirely centered around his disability or how he inspires other characters. In other words, unlike most fiction featuring disabled characters, this isn’t inspiration porn, which is perhaps the biggest reason why the film works at all.
Ben (Paul Rudd) is a newly certified caregiver looking for his first job when he comes across Trevor, a wheelchair-using housebound teenager who requires assistance when his mother is out at work during the day. Trevor’s quick wit and decidedly rude disposition are what apparently drive most other caregivers away, but Ben has a similarly dark sense of humor and the two develop a fast friendship. Trevor has never been further than a mile away from his house before and only knows the outside world through television, so Ben convinces him and his mother that a road trip to Trevor’s favorite landmark, the World’s Deepest Pit, is just what Trevor needs at this juncture in his life. So the two set out on an adventure of self-discovery, picking up hitchhikers, and learning about themselves and each other along the way.
Though the film is billed as a dramatic comedy, the comic half of that equation doesn’t quite deliver as well as it wants to. There are genuinely funny moments, but they don’t land as frequently as the film wants them to. What makes the film work, though, are the lead performances by Rudd and Roberts, who demonstrate admirably that the heart of the film is in the budding friendship of these two people. They joke, laugh, play practical jokes on one another, endure hardship, and comfort one another in ways that really make you believe that these guys care for one another, even when the tension rises to a point where they are at each other’s throats.
That’s why it’s especially unfortunate that Ben’s character arc feels largely superfluous and oddly incongruous with some of the main points of Ben and Trevor’s established bromance. Without delving too deep into spoiler territory, the film deigns to assign Ben a tragic backstory that doesn’t really do much to establish his character’s baseline identity, nor does it serve a particularly compelling literary purpose. The main theme of Ben’s arc is his paternal identity, yet the film so firmly establishes that he and Trevor don’t share a paternal relationship that it feels unnecessary and self-contradictory.
What ultimately makes the film worth watching is Trevor’s development from a recluse to a worldlier person through an emotionally relatable friendship. We watch him have Slim Jims for the first time, meet a girl his own age (played by a surprisingly competent Selena Gomez), go on his first date, and overcome the anxieties inherent in encountering the outside world for the first time, all while hanging out with his best and only friend who just so happens to be in charge of managing his bodily functions. Trevor feels like a real person, which shouldn’t have to be revelatory for a disabled character, yet approaches that level here. The Fundamentals of Caring may not be in itself a great movie, but its commitment to treating its characters—especially its disabled character—as complete and relatable individuals is a great accomplishment.