Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Greenebaum, Elliot (Director, Writer, Producer) & Alan Oxman, Archie Borders, Alex Laskey (Producers). Assisted Living. [Film]. 77 minutes, 2005. For theater play dates, see http://www.assistedlivingthemovie.com.

Reviewed by Robert Y. Chang, New York University

"There's a lot of sex in heaven, but bodies don't get in the way." Or so a resident of Meadow View, the nursing facility featured in Elliot Greenebaum's film Assisted Living, is told during a phone call from heaven. As it turns out, Todd (Michael Bonsignore) the janitor has made a habit of providing residents phone conversations with whomever they wish to speak, whether it's God up in heaven, any number of deceased relatives, or a wayward son who has left no forwarding address. Todd, when he shows up to work, spends his workday alternately cleaning the nursing home or attending to the miscellaneous needs of residents and staff. When he isn't pretending to be an aggressive salesman during an assertiveness training exercise with "George the assertiveness monkey," he might be found playing God. While Todd's phone calls may pass as idle entertainment for a bored janitor, in his replies one finds echoed themes about the body and ability central to the film.

Assisted Living is a docudrama about coming to terms with human frailty and dependence. The film reconstructs the events surrounding Todd's final day of work at Meadow View. The residents of the home and their daily activities provide the backdrop to the relationship that develops between Todd and Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley). Todd, the pot-smoking janitor, and Mrs. Pearlman, the resident who is at times aware of her descent into Alzheimer's, find in each other wounds and fears that the other is able to assist in resolving.

Much of the work in Disability Studies has engaged with the social model of disability. In this model, the subtle but significant distinction between disability and impairment is elaborated to highlight the social and institutional ways that people with impairments are disabled (or more accurately, if less colloquially, dis-enabled). At the core of the social model of disability is the assumption that regardless of physical or cognitive impairment the outcome of one's life should be self-determined.

The film complicates the social model of disability on exactly this point. In one scene, a Meadow View staff member offers a meditative prayer to upset residents to calm them down after an incident of cheating is uncovered at bingo: "I am what I choose to entertain in my mind. The world is what I wish it to be." Yet, this is far from the experience of Mrs. Pearlman, who awaits the day that her son comes to take her away from Meadow View to join him in Australia. She, in fact, "wins" a pair of sunglasses at bingo that she attempts to offer to her son (played by Todd) over the phone in an effort to convince him to accept her back into his life. This gut-wrenching phone conversation is paralleled by a conversation that the nursing home director, Hance Purell (Clint Vaught), has with his wife and son, where Hance insists that since his son has agreed to go to camp, he needs to go regardless of his current change of mind. The negotiation of self-determination, or one's best interest, within the context of necessary dependency ignored by able-ist ideology, is shown to be alternately more complex and more devastating than usually assumed.

The Masonic Homes of Kentucky, an independent living facility, served as the set for fictional "Meadow View" in the film. Greenebaum attempts to contribute to the body of work that has sought to explore the realm between documentary and fictional film, or docudrama. Thus, in addition to perspectival camera work, the film occasionally adopts a documentary realist approach; during the "interviews" with Todd's co-workers, the footage is shot in digital video (the rest of the film utilizes Super 16). Earlier efforts have been described under the rubrics of cinema verité, faction filmmaking, or mockumentary. This blurring of fact and fiction has proved disturbing for some, for, within the diagesis of the film, the nursing home is ultimately a disabling setting for Mrs. Pearlman. While the institution is attentive to her physical needs, more often than not, her expressed desires are met with blank stares and noncommittal answers. This may account for some of the negative reactions from assistive care professionals provoked by the film. The National Center for Assisted Living issued an e-alert, insisting that the staff of N.C.A.L. affiliated homes are not anything like Meadow View (Grand, 2005).

Overall, the film seems to be edited with the effect of simulating the experience of Alzheimer's patients - events are recounted out of sequence or though a distorted temporality; oftentimes, the focus of the frame emphasizes figures or objects of secondary importance to the scene taking place. This avoidance of a narrative arc through temporal and generic confusion is an intriguing way to tell a story about those who do not fit with able-ist ideals. The film, then, challenges able-ist ideology and documentary realism, provocatively suggesting that the two are linked.

The audience is occasionally presented with the ingenious methods that the residents devise to address problems that do not immediately concern the temporarily able-bodied. Assisted Living shows aging bodies, bodies that all viewers if they live long enough, will grow into, in order to highlight the difficulty of maintaining dignity in the face of social disablement. That said, the film presents the residents as both impaired and active, accomplishing what they can to bring about what they want. Shots of the film's main and supporting characters' hands recur throughout this film. We witness the aged hands of nursing home residents doing their daily exercises, hands doing the daily maintenance tasks of eating and dressing, hands manipulating tokens on a bingo board, and hands straining to reach dropped objects. As a symbol for action and ability, the film ends with an image of one hand reaching out to comfort another, reiterating the film's central tenet that it is in the helping of others that we can overcome our own fears and problems.


Grand, D. (2005, February 27). Indecent Exposure? The New York Times Magazine, p. 26.