The Brooke Ellison Story (2004)

Nikki Tranter

Christopher 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.

The Brooke Ellison Story

Director: Christopher Reeve
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John Slattery, Lacey Chabert, Vanessa Marano
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Sony Pictures
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-05-24
Amazon affiliate

"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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.