Assisted Living Review
By Shawn McKenzie 04/22/2005
I was glad that my Grandmother never went into a nursing home before she died. I have visited them before, and they seem like very lonely places. It’s not like they are cruel (a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), but with their so-called “loved ones” dumping them in there and never visiting them, they can feel like a prison. My Grandmother, who died about a month after her 90th birthday, lived independently on her own, and she had frequent visitors all the time (especially my mother and me.) She always felt loved and cared for, and even though she went through a rough last month of her life, I believe she had been very happy. When I saw the movie Assisted Living, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, it broke my heart. Unfortunately, since I’m not a big fan of unanswered movie questions, I didn’t give it a higher rating.
Todd (Michael Bonsignore) is a 27-year-old orderly and janitor who works for Meadow View Nursing Home. He is a stoner who lives with his equally stoned out roommates (Andrew Hunter and Jason Gregory) and arrives late at work frequently. When he arrives on this particular day, it is his last day, because his boss, nursing home chief administrator Hance Purcell (Clint Vaught), is sick of his frequent tardiness. He also doesn’t help matters when he accidentally lets a Golden Retriever named Mandy, owned by one of the residents, run away into the field behind the home and get lost. Before he slipped into slackerdom (I’m guessing because of his numerous hits of pot during the day at work), he used to entertain the residents and himself by doing things like playing Scrabble with them, and making them think that they were talking to God and their dearly departed relatives from Heaven on the phone from a remote phone. He seems to have a good relationship with desk nurse Nancy Jo Skelley (Nancy Jo Boone) and her 3-year-old daughter Malerie (Malerie Boone), but the others seem more concerned with other things, like Jose Albovias (as himself), the home’s pastor, and Kathy Hogan (Gail Benedict), the home’s activities director. He helps Kathy with things like assisting her on “assertive training,” where she uses a monkey puppet to teach the residents how to avoid being suckered by a salesman. Mr. Purcell, by the way, seems to drink a lot on the job, and he’s having troubles with his son Eric (only seen in a picture on his desk), but he seems lucid while dealing with Todd. Anyway…on his last day, Todd meets a resident named Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), a woman who has Alzheimer’s disease and thinks that she is there only to recover from a fall. She believes that her son Jeremy, a scientist living in Australia, is going to take her back to the small island continent. She has moments where she knows that Todd is just the orderly, but other times she thinks that Todd is Jeremy. During that day, Todd learns more about Mrs. Pearlman when she wants to watch a Discovery Channel program about Australia, but another old man changes the channel and wants to watch a kung fu show (a nurse intercedes and takes the old man away to another TV.) After the program ends, Todd takes her to Bingo. Along the way, she notices that his eyes look odd (probably from too much Mary Jane.) When she gets to Bingo, she sees that the prize for the next round is a pair of wraparound shades. She cheats and wins the game, takes the shades, and books it out of there. She then asks Nancy Jo if she can call Jeremy and tell him that she has some shades for him. Nancy Jo looks up Mrs. Pearlman’s contact information and only finds a lawyer’s name. She insists, and Todd steps in, intending to help her out. Big mistake. He does that “talking from Heaven” thing, only he is playing Jeremy instead of God. When the conversation goes south, Mrs. Pearlman has a meltdown. Todd feels so guilty that he does whatever he can to help her out, even though his hours are numbered.
The movie was written and directed by Elliot Greenebaum, who wanted to make a movie that blended fiction with documentary. He essentially wanted to make a movie that looked like the “mockumentaries” that filmmaker Christopher Guest has been famous for, but to make it a drama instead of a comedy. It’s not that there aren’t moments of comic relief (the assertiveness monkey scene was my favorite part), but it looked so real that you would swear that it really was a real documentary. It was filmed at the Masonic Homes of Kentucky, a real working assisted living facility, using many of the real staff and residents from the home. I believe that only the main characters who had more than one or two lines in the movie were actors, but everyone else was real. It was a unique way of telling a story.
That might be one of the problems though. The way Greenebaum constructed the story left too many unanswered questions. The movie was mainly about Todd and Mrs. Pearlman, but they kept introducing small subplots that went nowhere. What’s the deal with Purcell and his son? What purpose did Albovias have in the movie? What happened to Mandy? (They do answer the question about what the ultimate fate of the dog was, but not what had happened to her.) Then there are the unanswered questions about Todd and Mrs. Pearlman: How did Todd go from being a model employee to a pothead so quickly? Is Jeremy real? What’s the deal with the lawyer contact? What’s going to happen to Mrs. Pearlman? Even real documentaries have a wrapping-up summary at the end before the credits roll, and that’s why I was a little frustrated with the movie. I know that it’s “artsy” to leave unanswered questions, but that doesn’t fly with me too well.
Greenebaum was very original in his style with Assisted Living. I will be very curious to see his next work. I thought the acting seemed so real that I don’t even think that they were really acting (I doubt that the younger Boone even realized that she was “acting.”) The score, composed by Hub Moore, was dreary, and I don’t know if he meant it to be like that or not. I was a little concerned with the scenes of Todd having God talk to the residents on the phone, because it seemed a little cruel, like they were practical jokes or something, but I realized that they were meant out of love. I hope that you all have a great relationship with your kids, because I couldn’t imagine being put into one of these homes for the rest of my life. Maybe Greenebaum will do a sequel that will answer all of those unanswered questions.
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