Todd (Michael Bonsignore) hates his job. More precisely, he’s bored and depressed working as a janitor at Meadow View, an assisted living facility in rural Kentucky, weaving his mop and bucket round wheelchairs, playing Scrabble with and delivering patients to on-site medical assorted or bingo games, pretending not to notice his boss (Clint Vaught) is drinking. And so Todd survives by whatever small means he can—he wakes late, doesn’t shave, smokes weed as he drives his VW to work, and proceeds to spend the day getting as stoned as he can get during his brief breaks.
While Todd is hardly an upstanding character, he’s also something of an enigma, at least for his coworkers, who do their jobs without much visible attention to the moral or emotional tolls they take. And this is the premise of Assisted Living, structured in part as a series of documentary-style interviews with them, as they recall Todd’s last day (he’s fired), wondering at his seeming inability to take responsibility for his own actions, much less the folks left occasionally—if unthinkingly—in his care. One of these is Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), struggling with the knowledge that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, fearful of her own future and clinging to a past that has long seeped away, primarily in the form of a son no longer in touch, whom she believes is living in Australia.
Most everyone in the home has “someone” living outside, though the film underlines that the patients are largely abandoned, emotionally at least. Todd is one symptom of this broader trend: though he works with the patients daily, he’s tuned out from their particular needs and melancholies. This for his own psychic survival, as their deteriorating states only approximates the future that lies ahead for you, and the poignant, though unsentimental center of Assisted Living is precisely this: it’s frightening to imagine growing old, alone and tucked away in a home. “Nobody respects my time,” mutters one patient. “Nobody understands my time.”
And so the residents and staff workers find ways to distract themselves: though their caretakers tend to park the patients in the tv room for hours on end, such diversion is inevitably temporary (“I am what I choose to entertain in my mind,” announces one. “The world is what I think it is”). Nurse Nancy Jo (Nancy Jo Boone) brings her young daughter Malerie Skelley (Malerie Boone) to work with her, which means mom always has an eye out for the child’s welfare, just enough to keep her mind off her charges’ deepest needs. A visiting singer performs “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Blue Skies,” hardly relevant to anyone’s situation. And the administrator, Hance (Clint Vaught), spends much of his day on the phone, arguing with his own child who fears going away to summer camp. “I remember Todd,” he says during his interview. “I thought he had real promise.” In other words, he’s not remembering very well. He’s not paying attention, only rehearsing homilies. And so he misses the real “real promise” Todd embodies.
Todd finds his own distractions, even aside from his joint-breaks. He spends a few minutes offering the patients phone calls “from heaven”—one by one they take a call from someone who’s passed (voiced by Todd hidden from view in another room). The camera watches unflinchingly as they come to ask questions and listen to accounts of what it’s like beyond the pearly gates: Do you have sex? (“There’s a lot of sex in heaven, but bodies don’t get in the way.”) Do you get fat? (“Yes, but you’re fat because you want to be fat.”) In heaven, which of my two husbands will I be married to? (“The one you like best.”) This seemingly harmless activity passes for entertainment—for the “callers,” for Nancy Jo, who listens in, and for Todd. For you, it’s sad, if strangely understandable.
Todd tries another version of this game when Mrs. Pearlman is agitated. She’s seen a tv program about Australia, and been taken by the notion that her son is vulnerable to what the announcer calls the dangerous “the ultraviolet rays.” Her increasing upset at the front desk—she needs to call her son, now—catches Todd’s attention, and so he pretends to be the missing son on the phone, imagining the ruse will distract Mrs. Pearlman like it has everyone else. Instead, she begs him to come rescue her from the home, reeling into distress and compelling Nancy Jo to call for medication, as Mrs. Pearlman melts down in front of Malerie Skelley.
For her own part, Mrs. Pearlman understands what’s going on (“I know I’m getting it, you know, the Alzheimer’s”), and while she can’t quite fathom the imminent loss, she does live with a certain sense of peace. Intermittently, she mistakes Todd for her son (“Your eyes look hurt,” she observes, acutely, and offers him the ultraviolet-rays-resistant sunglasses she’s obtained—not exactly legitimately - for her son in Australia). Her sage awareness makes her both at once more difficult and easier for Todd to comprehend. As hard as he tries to escape his lot in life, he sees how hard she tries to hang on to hers. And they form a bond, of sorts, an exchange of hopes and fears, an agreement to respect one another in the face of the daunting disrespect all around them.
At the same time that it offers this complex and affecting (if occasionally sentimental) fiction—this delicately developing relationship—Assisted Living raises other questions, having to do wit the ways that fictions shape everyone’s lives, the faces you put on and the stories you tell (yourself and others), to get through each day. Shot at a real assisted living home, the Masonic Homes of Kentucky, and featuring real staff members and residents, the film uses its part-documentary structure to explore such profound fictions, the ways all narratives, all identities, might be understood as efforts to stave off daily, unfixable fears—of incoherence, of loss, of rejection. The easy moral to draw is that everyone needs assistance in living, but the more difficult truth is that living is illusory always.