Director: Luke White
Handsome begins as if it will be a touching documentary about two brothers, one of whom has Down’s syndrome but soon the film, made by another set of brothers, becomes a more difficult watch as the pair travel the world in search of siblings like themselves, Their journey proves both sobering and, for Nick, the non-disabled brother, life-changing.
Their first trip is in Britain, and Nick and Alex travel to Cornwall in a rented campervan. Nick is worried that their parents do too much for Alex, and that their help is hindering the chance for Alex to become more independent. At the moment, Alex cannot shower without assistance and nor can he speak in full sentences. Nick has decided that Alex move in with him for a year in the hope that one day Alex could live alone or find a job. For support and advice, Nick is keen to discover how other siblings fare in similar situations.
Each family he encounters has their own strategy. In Cornwall, Molly has asked Nick not to say the ‘D word’ when he visits her and her brother Charlie. She doesn’t want her brother to feel as if he’s different and so her family make up strange excuses about why he can’t live a life like his sister. Instead of telling him the truth about why he can’t drive, the family have fabricated a law enacted by the Government that bans people with glasses and certain coloured hair from getting behind the wheel. Swapping one marker of difference for another doesn’t seem to make much sense and later Molly admits that perhaps they should be more honest with him, but having spent so much time with Charlie the family no longer see his difference; they see Charlie.
Alex and Nick then travel to New York where they meet Amber who is more up-front about her brother’s disability, but she admits that she doesn’t know whether Armond really grasps what Down’s syndrome is or knows that he has it. With Alex and Armond at the cafe table, it is uncomfortable to watch Nick and Amber discuss their brothers, even moving on to issues surrounding romance and sex. However, it’s hard to know how much Alex and Armond understand of what is being said about them.
Amber suggests that in America there is more government support for those with autism than there is for people with Down’s syndrome, and this frustration is also shared by Krish in Mumbai, who says that autism is more widely acknowledged in India because of popular films with the result that Down’s syndrome is less understood. However, Nick is still surprised to see how some communities in the Indian city actively employ those with Down’s syndrome, giving them work and money. But this positive attitude is only visible in the wealthier parts of Mumbai. Despite an exploration into the slums, it remains unclear what happens to Down syndrome children there.
It’s not always clear what is driving Nick’s quest to seek out people like him and his brother. Is he searching for a balance in which that he can pursue his own ambitions as well as look after his brother? Or is he hoping to find permission to admit that he doesn’t have the answers. Witnessing his frustration as he shouts at Alex to start acting like a man or browbeating him to string together a full sentence is harrowing, but Handsome seeks to show the realities of the relationship rather than sugar-coat the story for cinema.
Continuing in this vein, the end of Handsome, as the brothers reach Vietnam, is staggeringly honest, and it becomes clear that this film is about Nick rather than Alex. It’s been a journey of a lifetime for both of them, and yet we can never know what Alex thinks of it, but he seems happiest in the noise and colours of India.
Available on Digital Download from 30 August 2021