“We’re just average people that live pretty average lives, at least in our estimation,” says Ed Ellison in an interview for the new DVD of The Brooke Ellison Story. “And to have somebody acting it out and making it seem so important is strange.” Ellison’s wife, Jean, and daughter, Brooke, the subject of Christopher Reeve’s film, also note in the interviews just how “shocking” they initially considered the idea that someone — albeit someone as revered as Reeve — would want to turn their lives into a movie. “[Chris] was intrigued by my life and about what I had done,” Brooke says, “which was extremely flattering and humbling.”
Brooke (played as a teenager by Lacey Chabert) was paralyzed by a car accident, and her parents deserve all the accolades anyone wants to throw at them. Typically, those in Brooke’s situation spend their lives in hospitals. And while that isn’t to say other families aren’t loving or supportive, the lengths to which Brooke’s parents went to see her achieve her dream of going to Harvard, risking their home, their financial security, and their marriage (with Jean and Ed separated for months at a time), are hardly commonplace.
The Brooke Ellison Story is Ed (John Slattery) and Jean’s (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) story, and how they accept such a major change in their lives as career-oriented parents to three smart kids. Before they have time to process the change, they’re battling threats to their sanity tossed at them by pessimistic doctors, a screwed-up health system (the Ellisons discover they can only receive financial assistance if they leave Brooke in a hospital, which they refuse to do), an uncooperative school system, and even their healthy kids, who suffer neglect as the demands of Brooke’s condition chew up everyone’s time. Brooke’s part in the story is all but ignored until the film’s final half hour, when she, with Jean constantly by her side in case her ventilator disconnects, attends Harvard.
When the film’s concentration switches from the parents to Brooke, as she and Jean head off to college, there’s much catching up to do. We don’t know Brooke beyond a few dreams she has of herself as a ballerina. She’s struck down (in an accident we don’t see) early in the film, and spends the hour leading up to college in a coma. When she’s back at school and winning science competitions, it’s the first we know of her scholastic ability.
Reeve’s decision to break the film’s perspective so dramatically — from Brooke in the very beginning to her parents and back to Brooke — is disarming. The film doesn’t bog itself down in pitiable moments, but in order to gain full appreciation for Brooke’s plight, some insight into her experience growing up in wheelchair is necessary. It’s not until she gets to Harvard that she starts questioning her place in the world, and whether or not she’ll find support and affection away from her mother: “Who other than my own mother will do this for me?” she says. “There’s no place for me out there, mom.”
By then, it’s too late. Brooke notes in the interview, “There were parts of our lives that were very grim.” Her mother adds that Reeve didn’t want to “gloss over” such moments, but the grimness never goes beyond images of Brooke in her hospital bed. She and Jean have one major fight in the film, which relates only indirectly to Brooke’s condition (it’s over heartbreak, something, Jean reminds her, everyone goes through). Aside from a few resistant authorities (Medicaid, her high school principal), Brooke is never persecuted or ridiculed for her disability. All her neighbors and new associates in college go out of their way to help her. Wonderful as it is to witness this willingness to make life easy for her, it feels too easy. It’s almost as if the film is afraid to show the darker side of Brooke’s condition.
Reeve’s film seems geared less towards portraying the warts and all existence of a disabled person, than showing what can be achieved with a little selfless dedication. Ed and Jean are the stars of the piece. The pair is superbly developed: Ed is an emotional, yet tireless supporter of his family, and Jean their (mostly) rock-hard protector.
It’s a pity the same care was not afforded the film’s apparent subject. Sympathy and concern for someone in Brooke’s situation might be a given, but this film relies on it too much. Brooke’s allocated a kind of heroine status at first, but by the end, it feels unearned — not because she doesn’t deserve credit when she finally graduates, but because we know so little about what she’s gone through, on the inside, to get there.