Ben Benjamin (Paul Rudd) sits for his first interview as a newly-minted caregiver and exchanges a few niceties with Elsa, the mother of his patient-to-be. Before they have a chance to talk much, Trevor (Craig Roberts) flies into the room on his power wheelchair yelling incomprehensibly and ramming himself into the couch. Visibly upset, Ben wonders if his aftershave is causing the outburst.
Trevor is just joking, and that’s not the first time he’ll pull a fast one on Ben.
Still unsure about Ben, a former writer who has no caregiving experience, Trevor continues to test him by asking, “How exactly would you wipe my ass?”
“I’d wipe it in such a way that when it was done, there would be no shit left on your ass,” Ben says, expressionless. It’s clearly an answer Trevor likes: “That’s the one.”
Thus, a friendship begins between an 18-year-old boy with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and a middle-aged man grappling with his own issues. In The Fundamentals of Caring, available on Netflix, I watched a traditionally transactional relationship become so much more. I learned, as someone who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the same condition as Trevor, that sometimes we need someone to push us to do what we never thought possible.
After some convincing, Trevor embarks on a road trip with Ben, with the end goal of seeing the World’s Deepest Pit in Utah. Having traveled no further than a one-hour drive away from his home in Washington, Trevor is out of his comfort zone. He faces plenty of ups and downs as they attempt to navigate a world that isn’t made for someone in a wheelchair.
Craig Roberts does an incredible job portraying a boy with Duchenne. He nails the self-deprecating humor and it feels like he really understands the condition. I honestly thought he had the disease at first. From the way he curls his fingers, down to how he sits, he brings the character and disease to light in a way I’ve never seen in a movie before.
The movie had me laughing and crying at once, as I related to Trevor’s struggles (particularly with girls) and watched his and his caregiver’s triumphs. The Fundamentals of Caring should be on the watchlist of anyone not familiar with Duchenne or disability; it will be illuminating.
[If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading here and watch it. Spoilers to come.]
Early in the movie, Elsa walks Ben through Trevor’s care routine—a dizzying array of to-dos. I found the walkthrough surprisingly accurate for Hollywood. I’m familiar with the cough assist, BiPap, and slew of medications that are both hard to swallow and taste like the shit Ben wipes off of Trevor.
The six-week course that produced Ben’s certification for caregiving taught him the fundamentals, but Trevor helps Ben accept the death of his own son and subsequent marital separation. Trevor acts as the son that Ben lost, filling a void in Ben’s life and helping him through the depression he’s been mired in since his son died and his wife filed for divorce.
During the road trip, which makes up about 70 percent of the movie’s run time, Ben and Trevor pick up a young woman hitchhiking, Dot (Selena Gomez), and a pregnant woman struggling with a broken-down car, Peaches (Megan Ferguson).
Where Ben fails to get Trevor to go out of his comfort zone and try new things, Dot succeeds. When Trevor first meets Dot, he clearly likes her, shyly giving a one-word answer to her question. Like Ben, Dot is another person who shows Trevor, a sheltered kid with Duchenne, what’s possible in life. During the movie, it’s cute to see Trevor mimic Dot’s insults against Ben, trying to impress her.
Like Trevor, I and many others who are in wheelchairs often feel like girls won’t accept us for who we are. But as Trevor learns through his experiences with Dot, that’s not always the case. At one motel stop, Ben feigns being tired so Trevor and Dot can have a one-on-one date.
Dot instantly recognizes the scheme to get Trevor his first date. She cuts straight to the point, asking him to meet in front of her room. While they sit in a diner across the road, Ben watches with contentment from the motel, as if Trevor were his son.
Peaches joins him as he gazes at the date he orchestrated, then asks him what being a parent is like. Ben responds that it’s “the only reason we’re here.”
The Fundamentals of Caring is an emotionally heavy movie at times, as it confronts the realities of living with a deadly disease or a deceased child. That said, it is also balanced and punctuated by dark humor served with deadpan deliveries.
About halfway through the movie, the gang travels to a Salt Lake City car dealership to meet Trevor’s absentee dad, who he finds out is a real “asshole.” Trevor eventually confronts Ben, losing faith in his own caregiver because of it. Their exchange is a turning point.
“It’s all been about you. You’re not my father,” Trevor says through tears. He believes that Ben signed up to be a caregiver not because he wanted to “help people,” but because he needed to overcome his grief. After a tense moment, they are ready to give up on the road trip and go home. Dot argues they must reach the final destination. Trevor listens and the trip continues.
They finally reach the World’s Deepest Pit. The four-person crew is taken aback by the scale of the pit and its beauty. While Dot, Trevor, and Peaches find an accessible way to the bottom, Ben confronts a man who had been following them, who turns out to be Dot’s father. The conversation is cut short by a panicked call from Dot, who says “There’s an emergency.”
As Ben runs down the quarry’s slope, it’s hard not to think Trevor must’ve fallen and broken his leg, or worse. It turns out Peaches is having her baby. Ben remembers his “ALOHA” training—Ask, Listen, Observe, Help, and Ask again. He jumps into action, safely delivering her son, Elton, into her arms. The filmmakers cut between the delivery sequence and a flashback, previously referenced a few times, of Ben’s son who died too young. I was left misty-eyed as the movie’s emotional build-up came to a head.
At the same time, the flashbacks to Ben’s son felt somewhat out of place. More Trevor-Ben banter could have been an appropriate replacement.
The movie draws to a close as the characters go their separate ways. Peaches goes off to the hospital, and Dot continues the rest of her journey with her dad. In a beautiful moment, Trevor and Dot are left alone to say goodbye. Dot refers to Trevor as “handsome and cool,” a description he’s jokingly given himself in the past, when asking Ben to write a book about him. Then, she plants a lengthy kiss on Trevor’s lips.
While that’s happening, Ben chats with Dot’s father, Cash. Ben explains more about Duchenne, saying many who have it are lucky to live until 30. “Life’s a real bitch,” Cash responds. “Not always,” Ben replies, watching Dot and Trevor embrace.
Before they leave their trip’s final destination, Ben has one more idea. He straps Trevor to a stretcher from a nearby ambulance, so Trevor can pee into the World’s Deepest Pit. It brings his character arc full circle: Trevor had earlier revealed to Ben that’s what he would do if his disease suddenly disappeared.
The ending fits. It reiterates that letting go of our fears to accomplish the seemingly impossible should be our approach to life, even if it’s sometimes “shit on a stick,” as Trevor would say.
Hawken Miller is a freelance journalist living in Orange County, California, and has written for BioNews Services, The Washington Post, Dot Esports, The Forward, KTLA 5, and The Sacramento Bee. He’s also a columnist for Muscular Dystrophy News Today. Hawken graduated with honors from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.