Joel Garcia (Eric Stoltz) is a young writer who loses the use of his legs after a climbing accident and faces medical, existential, romantic, sexual, institutional, and social challenges on the way to resuming what is left of his former life. Joel has to acknowledge his condition, decide (as a liberal and Hispanic) how to stand up against the bigoted bragging of his fellow patient the crude biker Bloss (William Forsythe), and, somehow, how to make the right moves with his girlfriend Anna (Helen Hunt), who is married and whose ambivalence about her relationship with Joel is compounded by his disability.

Joel and Bloss come together, toward the end, in an attempt to ease the suffering of a third patient, Raymond Hill (Wesley Snipes), a self-styled ladies' man who conceals the fact that his wife has just left him. The film was written and co-directed by Neal Jimenez, who, according to Roger Ebert, has experienced much of what his main character goes through.


This film's story is played on a smaller stage than that of Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, and the combination of that, the fine screenplay, and Eric Stoltz's low-key performance, offer a remarkably well detailed and cliche-free portrayal of the lives of several very different people who suddenly must come to terms with a major physical disability. The point of view is mainly Joel's, and Stoltz plays him complexly as ironic and non-committal, a slightly smirking observer of the scene whose emotional remove comes to bother us as well as Anna and Bloss (who loudly accuses Joel of being superior and a fake Hispanic).

He and Anna have several bad moments because they both are being unreasonably considerate of the other. (At one point she tells him she has left her husband, and he tells her to go back to her marriage, hoping all the time that she will tell him he is wrong.)

One of the major movements in the film is Joel's realizing that he needs some of the ego-power that Bloss has too much of. He cannot get that, of course, without blowing away the repressed anger that has smothered all his feelings. The film treats the theme of anger in the lives of several patients with admirable sophistication.

Sexuality also gets good attention. Joel, like the other patients we see getting a lecture on this from a disabled doctor, will never have normal erections or ejaculations, but that does not keep him from doing what he can. On one occasion Joel and Anna do some heavy petting behind a curtain in the ward and embarrass everyone else in the process. Later, after he has been discharged from the ward, there is a harrowing motel scene in which a spill from his urine bag spoils an otherwise at least plausibly pleasurable sexual encounter with Anna and sends Joel into a paroxysm of self-hatred and remorse.

There are also several fine moments on racial and ethnic themes--the by-play between Joel and Bloss about Joel's ethnicity, for instance, and a late-night scene in which a black male nurse urgently tries to quiet down a foolishly out of control Ray who has returned to the ward very drunk.

Ironically, it is the confabulating Ray who has tried harder than anyone to deny the harshness of his situation. He has a recurring dream that he tells to Bloss at a moment of reconciliation, a dream that he is on the surface of a body of water, and able to stay up by dancing, but sure that he will sink as soon as he stops--and he is very tired of dancing.


Sundance Audience Award for Drama; Sundance Waldo Salt Screenplay Award

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