This is the first of my promised reviews of programs from BBC Three’s disability lead season entitled Defying the Label and I have to start with a disclaimer. Last October I was actually seen for the lead of Don’t Take My Baby. It was the first role I had ever been offered that I wanted because I felt the story needed to be told and not because it was simply a job. I’m glad that it went to a disabled actor as skilled as @Ruth_Madeley. She truly brings a grace and strength to the role of Anna, without which the rest of the film might spin apart.
When I write these blog posts, by and large I analyse how a story involving disability is written. I’m not interested in whether or not disability is portrayed accurately and I am in no way looking to slate any actor with a disability and tout my talent as superior. The truth is, I dropped out of drama school so I’m in no position to criticise anybody’s performance, and I’m still just happy to see just about anybody with a disability on screen. But I do know how to tell a good story, and I believe that good writing is key to incorporating disability in mainstream media.
Unfortunately this script falls short of its goal.
The story of Don’t Take My Baby centres around a young couple, Anna and Tom, both of whom are physically disabled, and their fight to regain custody of their newborn daughter after the state places her in care until the two can be deemed ‘fit parents.’ The child being held in care in essentially the most dramatic part of the story. But by the time the film starts, this has already happened. We don’t see the main event, just its fallout and, that is robbing the story of drama.
This could be overcome if something happened in the story that was more dramatic but that payoff never comes. The big ‘climax’ is a fight between Anna and Tom when their both physically exhausted, sick of dealing with both a screaming baby and case workers invading their privacy, and at their wits end all the way around. Guess what, any couple is going to fight at that point, it’s nothing unique to Tom and Anna’s story and within the context of the script, the fight isn’t particularly well earned. It looks like the two of them are just having a bad day rather than a unique story that leads to the inevitable.
Another difficulty the film encounters is that it can’t decide which frame to use. At some points Anna is talking to camera in order send a message to her daughter after her death, and at others points Anna is talking to camera in order to give testimony in order to secure testimony. This dual frame does little to help the power in the story. Rather, it splits the focus, and in doing so, both stories lose their power. On their own either frame would be powerful, you really couldn’t make a wrong decision between the two. But both together looks like a mismatched pair of socks rather than a committed story where all the pieces fit together.
Finally, the film dips in and out of scenes without going into much detail. Characters in this film at FLAT and worse still, REACTIONARY. Anna is loveable and almost angelic in her quest of becoming a mother, but there's little room for surprises in her development. We find it difficult to understand the government’s removal of children from parents with disabilities in 2015. We don’t get to see a step by step progression of how these characters take action to regain custody of their daughter. Everything happens to them, nothing they do is active. There is no character arc, no growth. This film shows events, it does not tell a story. Without transformation of some sort there is no story. These are fundamental problems in writing and most accomplished screenwriters avoid these mistakes like the plague.
I’m thankful to see a nontraditional story about a couple with a disability in mainstream media, but once again, it comes with a sacrifice of good story telling technique. Screenwriters have to trust their traditional rules of storytelling regardless of what challenging topic we need to face. Regardless of if we’re talking about teenagers in love, bolshevik rebels, talking cows, people with disabilities, or space aliens from an undiscovered planet, we all want the same thing. Writers have to learn the basic rules of storytelling and human instinct will not fail them. There’s no ‘tricks’ or ‘issues’ you have to navigate when adding disability to a story. Like so many other things, it’s just a part of life.
Because it’s a Brave New World out there. Every Day.