Wiener-Dog: a closer look at the representation of characters with Down Syndrome

I haven't seen many honest portrayals of people with mental challenges or genetic disorders in film and TV. Sure, there are a lot of films where an actor will adopt a persona to tell a story of bravery: Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Cuba Gooding Jr in Radio, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, and Louisa Krause in Jane Wants a Boyfriend come immediately to mind. But there are few films that show actual people with cerebral palsy cast as people with cerebral palsy, people with autism cast as people with autism or people with ALS cast as people with ALS. One disorder in particular that often gets overlooked is Down Syndrome. This is important to me because my younger brother Timmy is a person with Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder, a chromosome mutation. [1]

The 2016 independent film Weiner-Dog (written and directed by Todd Solondz) has two characters with Down Syndrome and the actor and actress who play those characters both have Down Syndrome. I'm going to explore the portrayals and performances of these characters in a set of scenes from the film.

So, what’s the movie about?

Stylistically, the film could be considered a vignette film – it is made up of a series of sections which are tied together only loosely by a common character: a dachshund (the name of the dog keeps changing: first Wiener-Dog, then Doody, then it is unnamed, and finally Cancer). Each of the sections is interesting and involves people who have been denied love in various ways. This film could be considered an anti-love story. Just when the central human characters in each vignette are about to fully experience a genuine emotion or connection, the narrative shifts to a new set of characters and to a new scenario altogether. The actors and director takes the emotion right to the edge before changing direction. We enter the story in the middle and leave before the end. Some reviewers have complained about this, but I think these scenes work realistically.

Bridget Brown and Connor Long — (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

The vignette I will focus on is the second one. It features the characters Dawn, Brandon, Tommy, and April – Tommy and April have Down Syndrome. My reflections are fairly anecdotal and based almost solely on my experience and interpretation, but I would like to make the argument that director Todd Solondz, Greta Gerwig's Dawn, Kieran Culkin's Brandon, Connor Long's Tommy, and Bridget Brown's April get these relationships and interactions right. I don't intend to speak on behalf of all people who have Down Syndrome or to impose my experience on all people who love people with Down Syndrome, but I've made some observations about this section of the film and these representations that I think are worth considering.

“ok, can we talk?”

Tommy and April live together and appear to be married (the most stable relationship in the whole film). Brandon and Dawn visit them to deliver some tragic news. After dinner, Dawn and April are in the kitchen. April is content cleaning dishes, but Dawn seems to want to do something. She suggests that the two of them go for a walk. April agrees on one condition: "ok, can we talk?" While they're actually on the walk, however, they don't get very far before they stop talking and April asks to go back inside. This kind interaction is typical of the kind I often have with my brother, Timmy. When I'm home, I love to spend time with him, but I also like to have something to do while we're together. I like to be active. This is something that makes my brother and me different – Timmy likes to be productive. If I were to suggest a walk to Timmy, as Dawn does to April, he may agree, but he wouldn't love it. To me, we would be spending time together, getting exercise, and maybe experiencing a pretty evening. To him, going for a walk is not a productive activity. Around the house, he'd rather fold laundry, iron clothes, or vacuum (my mom loves this about him, naturally). Similar to how April asks to talk, if I'm ever driving with Timmy, inevitably he'll turn off my music and say something like, "can we just talk, Mike?" and I'll say, "sure, what do you want to talk about?" and he'll usually say, "I don't know, you?" He doesn't ask to talk, because he has questions or things to say, necessarily, but because he knows that talking is communicating and communicating makes him feel human and loved, makes him feel part of something and makes him feel like others depend on him; talking makes him feel necessary. I think this is true of all of us. He wants to talk to feel connected. I suspect this is also the motivation in April's character when she asks if she can talk with Dawn on their walk.

When I ask Timmy what he wants to talk about and he says, "I don't know," I think it's less that he actually doesn't know something, and more an expression of his insecurity about his communicative ability. Like anyone, he doesn't like being misunderstood. One thing that Timmy struggles with, and is characteristic of many people with Down Syndrome, is his word annunciation and language development. He's had great help from family, speech pathologists, peers, and teachers in school, but for most of his life, people have had a hard time understanding the words he's saying. When one of my family is around, we can usually help him, but that is not as empowering as if he could do it himself. Sometimes people get frustrated because they can't understand him, or Timmy will get frustrated because he has to repeat himself. I think because of these communication barriers, around age thirteen or fifteen, he began having conversational asides to himself. When he talks to himself, there are no barriers. He can understand himself, process his current emotions, and decide how to act without having to repeat himself or rely on someone else for input. He also watches a lot of TV and I think that has greatly improved his vocabulary and phrasing over time because he gets consistent language input, is consistently "spoken to" and, in his own way, verbally interacts with characters on the screen. Conversation is important to Timmy, even if he doesn't initiate or have anything particular to say.

The scene between Dawn and April seemed to accurately demonstrate the need for communication and relationship that all people feel and the tension between the desire to talk and the lack of things to say. I really identified with Dawn's honest desire to accommodate April and facilitate an interaction with her, juxtaposed with her inability to steer the conversation conventionally. I also appreciated April's character in this scene. After their short walk and the slight awkwardness of the interaction, she asked to go back inside – back to safety. April is a refreshingly transparent character and her desire to retreat is familiar, relatable, and human.

Video games and agency

At the same time that Dawn and April are on their walk, Tommy and Brandon are inside at the computer. Tommy is playing a video game. Brandon suggests taking a break for ten minutes, which Tommy talks down to a five minutes. Brandon has something important to tell Tommy but he doesn't quite know how to bring it up.

Again, I see parallels to my experience with my brother Timmy. He loves video games – especially ones with guns (though my mom will hardly let them in the house). Research shows that one reason people like video games is because when a person is playing, he is in complete control of the world of the game – he makes the decisions, he decides where to walk, he decides when to do special moves, which doors to open, which people to kill, when to pull the trigger. Role-playing games, especially, make people feel in control of life, give players a sense of agency. Even if it's an illusion, it's a powerful one. [2] In this sense, video games are empowering, humanizing, and comforting, especially, I believe, for someone like my brother. Much of his life has been guided by others and prepared for him. My mom prepares meals for him and until a few years ago he didn't cut his own food (he compensates now by using a steak knife to cut everything – more power, more control). He doesn't know how to read so any time he gets a card in the mail or brings something home from school, it must be read to him. He's always a passenger in the car (and probably always will be). He even has to ask my Mom for permission before he can play video games. But when he's playing, he's in complete control.

In this scene, Brandon is Tommy's guest, yet Brandon thinks he knows what is best for Tommy. Brandon is trying to limit and control Tommy's experience because he thinks he knows best. I think this interaction demonstrates the strength and consistency of Tommy's character and appropriate desire for control – even in Brandon's attempt to redirect the activity, Tommy is bargaining for control of how much time they break from the game.

It’s hard to deliver hard news

When they finally do break from the game, they step outside. Brandon is trying to find the most delicate way of sharing the news that their father is dead and died by drinking. I understand this tension – it's hard to deliver hard news to someone you love. The news is hard for Tommy to believe because he spoke to his father very recently. He doesn't understand how he could be dead. Even more confounding, his father told him when they spoke that he had stopped drinking. The way Tommy continually refuses to accept what Brandon is saying may seem circular and unrealistic, but I actually found this scene quite poignant. My brother has a tendency to compartmentalize identifications of things and he has distinct names for distinct things. One thing can't be two things. For example, he won't let me call my laptop a computer – it's a laptop. A desktop is a computer. Even though a laptop is a computer, it doesn't look like a computer, it looks like a laptop. We sometimes go back and forth over semantics. Relatedly, in terms of understanding definitions and grasping reality, Tommy believes his father when he says he's stopped drinking. He doesn't want to believe that his father could died from drinking because his father said he had stopped. Tommy took his father at his word. Also, Tommy just talked to his father and doesn't believe that his father could be dead so soon after their conversation.

Tommy seems to want to believe that his father and brother are good and wants to believe them when they promise to quit their addictions. He asked his father to quit drinking and believed that he had. He asks Brandon to quit drugs and though Brandon says yes, we don't really believe him because we've already seen Brandon use heroin earlier in the film. Tommy wants things to be in order and to be right and good. My brother is just the same way. He'll ask, "are you mad, Mike?" which is understandable after a fight or some sort of argument, but sometimes he'll ask if I'm being particularly quiet. He cares when things are out of order and wants to see them set right. Tommy's reaction may seem simple and predictable, but does that make it wrong or unfair? I don’t think so. I think Tommy's reaction is very personal, realistic, and touching. He just spoke to his father, how could he be dead? His father told him he stopped drinking, how could alcohol have killed him? It may be simple or may seem contradictory, but is it any less human? Tommy is demonstrating a very real, very complex, and very poignant attempt to cope with the death of someone he trusted and loved.

Wrap it up

I can't speak to whether or not Solondz universally wrote or authentically demonstrated what it's like to have Down Syndrome or love someone with Down Syndrome, but I can speak to the brilliant acting of Connor Long and I can say with confidence that Tommy is as close as I'll ever get to seeing a character like my brother on the screen – not just someone who looks like or talks like my brother, but a realized, complex character with lines of dialogue, relationships, desires, a range of emotion, and a definite plotline. I’m grateful for the inclusion of this section and these characters and I hope it is a sign of more honest writing, casting, and the inclusion of more stories of people with mental challenges and genetic disorders in film.

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Footnotes

[1] Most people have two copies of each of their twenty-three chromosomes (one set from Mom, one set from Dad) totaling forty-six. People with Down Syndrome have three copies of chromosome twenty-one, giving them a total of forty-seven. Common things a person with Down Syndrome may struggle with are low muscle tone, difficulties with the senses of hearing and vision, and speech impairments. http://www.ndss.org/Down-Syndrome/What-Is-Down-Syndrome/

[2] Keith Stuart, "Video games aren't about power – they're about agency." https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/16/video-games-power-agency-control