“Hi, my love. What did you eat for dinner?” Monica Walter is talking to her fiancé, David Martinez, by phone. Both are visibly delighted, as they trade effusive declarations of love. “I love you so much,” he asserts. “You’re my Winnie the Pooh.” She smiles, then announces it’s time to end the call. “I think I better go,” she says, “‘Cause, you know, my mom. See you tomorrow!”
As she hangs up, the frame cuts to David, cradling the handset as he beams. Their exchange is charming, their expressiveness sweetly candid. And Monica’s concern about her mother, Maria Elena, introduces an extraordinary relationship. As she and David plan their wedding, 31-year-old Monica is still living with her mother and stepfather, Bob. And, as you come to see during Monica & David, even after the marriage, the couple will be living with her parents: Monica and David have Down syndrome.
Premiering on HBO on 14 October, Alexandra Codina’s documentary follows the family through the first year of the marriage (Monica is the filmmaker’s cousin). “Marriage is rare for adults with intellectual disabilities,” the film notes in an opening title card. The film shows how difficult and also how rewarding it can be. Maria Elena describes the doubleness: “She is the light of my life,” Maria Elena declares, “And I firmly believe that that my life’s work is Monica.”
Indeed, as much as Monica and David are capable, emotionally generous, and frankly lovely adults, they also contend daily with limits — less in themselves than in the people around them. Both Maria Elena and David’s mother Maria are determined to provide their children with a simultaneous sense of security and independence: the balance is a delicate one, and must be negotiated every day. Bob explains, “I think their mothers are very progressive. What I see with the other kids that Monica and David hang out with is overprotection, they keep their babies very wrapped up in their little cocoon.”
To avoid constructing that “cocoon,” Maria Elena and Bob build an apartment onto their new home in Hollywood, Florida: here the “kids” can live on their own but also, essentially, down the hall. Maria Elena is fierce about her own goals: “The thought of Monica or David running across anyone who would so much as look at them the wrong way drives me crazy. That’s why I want them with us, because I feel like I can shelter them from all of that.” As she speaks, the camera shows Monica putting on her eye makeup in front of the bathroom mirror. Each day she heads out into a world her mother shapes for her as much as she can. The film focuses on the perpetual process of that shaping.
Like any other subject in any other documentary, Monica is revealed only to a point, as she performs for the camera, she describes her experience. The film tells its own story too, framing Monica and David’s experiences for viewers. Both Monica and David have ideas about their futures. He wants to work at Publix Supermarket, an idea that gives Maria pause: even knowing that he can handle the responsibility and daily tasks, she sighs, “I’ve seen the ways people treat these kids.” And when Monica announces she wants to have a baby, Maria Elena is visibly surprised. “It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” she says, as they make their way into an elevator, the space tight and the camera close. “They do have a lot of love to give,” Maria Elena says later, “And that’s something that’s always gonna be unfulfilled.”
Much else is fulfilled. The first year in their new home brings inevitable surprises, including David being diagnosed with diabetes. Now he has to have shots four times a day and his diet and activity must be monitored. It’s a daunting development, and everyone takes it pretty much in stride. It’s true that over the course of the year, Maria Elena looks a bit older than she does at film’s start. And it’s true that she worries about Monica’s well-being down the road. “It’s something that enters my mind once a day,” she says, her eyes clouding. “She went through a lot.” And with that, she ends the interview, waving at the camera as she says, “I can’t do this.”
What she can do — and does, every day — is work to ensure her daughter lives a “normal life,” whatever that can mean. The film makes visible both the boundaries of that idea, and the ways it can be expansive. As Monica and David’s lives are both risky and restricted as well as adventurous, exciting, and full of possibilities, like and unlike the lives of those without Down syndrome. Asked whether he ever feels different, David nods. “Sometimes I do, not all the time.” Asked to say more, he adds, “Different is tough.”