Wheelchair Bounds 

Disabled friends forge a happy life in Rory O'Shea Was Here.

When Marlon Brando made his 1950 movie debut in The Men, he struck a pioneering blow for the disabled: The paraplegic ex-GI Brando played so eloquently boiled with rage, scorning both his fiancée and his doctor, but in the end he came to terms with the physical and emotional demands of his condition. Since then, of course, the movies have produced many wheelchair-bound heroes trying to cope -- among them John Savage's insecure failure in 1980's Inside Moves, Tom Cruise's angry Vietnam vet in Born on the Fourth of July, and Eric Stoltz' accident-crippled novelist in 1992's The Waterdance. The pair of appealing Irish boys we meet in Damien O'Donnell's Rory O'Shea Was Here are just the latest in a long line of characters who tug at the heartstrings from a vulnerable seated position, and they do it in high style.

Truth be told, the boisterous title character played here by energetic young actor James McAvoy has more in common with McMurphy, the madcap asylum rebel of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, than with the Brando and Cruise types. For that matter, he also has a touch of Girl, Interrupted in him. A natural-born subversive with a gift for hilarious banter, Rory hits a staid, gloomy institution called Carrigmore like a blond-spiked tornado -- mocking the staff, flouting the rules, transforming his tragedy (he has a degenerative form of muscular dystrophy) into a soaring act of will. The management of the place condescendingly calls it "a special home for special people": They probably haven't seen anyone as special as Rory in a long time.

Like McMurphy, this force of nature pulls others into his vortex, most notably meek cerebral palsy sufferer Michael Connolly (Steven Robertson). As compliant as Rory is defiant, Michael is counting down the days and struggling with a severe speech impediment to make himself understood. Rory is just the tonic he needs -- a gleeful, knowing insurrectionist who turns the stereo up full blast at 3 a.m., chides Carrigmore's less malignant version of Nurse Ratched (Irish film stalwart Brenda Fricker), and extols the three ideals of flaming youth: "get drunk, get arrested, get laid." We soon learn, of course, that Rory's fierce hold on life cannot last, and that gives this spirited comedy its sweetly sympathetic underpinning -- and a couple of gooey moments.

Released abroad under the mawkish title Inside I'm Dancing, O'Donnell's film drew some fire from European advocates for the disabled because neither of its two young stars is actually a wheelchair user, but whether this complaint is legitimate remains a matter of speculation. What is acting, after all, if not the creation of character in every manifestation? Suffice it to say that McAvoy and Robertson give their best as they bring Rory and Michael to life. They happily misspend the proceeds from street-corner collection buckets on a boozy spree in a public house. They style their way into a discotheque. Most crucial, they convince a state health board that they're ready to live independently in their own flat -- "cripple heaven," they call it -- by using some clever manipulation and a bit of blackmail against Michael's politically connected father.

Part desperado, part inspirational con man, Rory rages against the dying of the light because his thirst for freedom is keen and because he has to transfer it to others. But writers Christian O'Reilly (story) and Jeffrey Caine (screenplay) aren't content to stop there, nor should they be. Rory and Michael need a full-time helper to get along in their new life, so the duo becomes a trio when they recruit buxom, sweet-tempered supermarket clerk Siobhan (Romola Garai) to do the job. Siobhan is not only caring, she's refreshingly candid, so when the long-neglected Michael falls hopelessly in love with her, and Rory gets some ideas of his own, she becomes another powerful force in their education. The three actors work so beautifully together, it seems they were born for each other, and the bittersweet resolution of their ménage strikes just the right note: It's neither saccharine nor severe, and it avoids triumphant sentimentalism. Some critics of Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby claim its view of the disabled is grimly pessimistic; they can't level the same charge at O'Donnell and company, despite the absence of hearts and flowers in Rory. Skillfully made, carefully detailed, and lovingly acted, this is a movie that earns every dampened hanky it induces.


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