Neither overly sentimental nor insistently uplifting, “Monica & David,” Alexandra Codina’s confidently directed, expertly edited docu about the marriage of two people with Down syndrome, proves unexpectedly engrossing. The fact that the helmer is also Monica’s cousin grants her total access to the unself-conscious couple and cuts through any directorial pussyfooting. Florida-set docu follows the couple’s first year together as they attempt to redefine their boundaries in an ever-shifting context, along with those on whom they depend. Winner of the documentary prize at Tribeca, pic is skedded for October broadcast on HBO after a likely prestigious fest tour.
Codina locks down her docu’s broader topic early on: The recent dramatic increase in life expectancy for people with Down syndrome (from 25 years to 60-plus) has opened up all kinds of new possibilities and problems. Marriage, traditionally very rare among those with intellectual disabilities, creates an interdependent spousal unit whose capabilities and goals remain largely unknown. Codina’s film explores how one family, only incidentally hers, navigates the tricky shoals between support and overprotectiveness.
Deeply and demonstratively in love, Monica and David constantly touch, kiss, encourage each other and reinforce the lessons they feel empowered by remembering. They dream of leading their own lives, getting jobs and having children (dreams their parents find unrealistic). They settle in with Monica’s mother, Maria Elena, and stepfather, Bob (both Monica’s and David’s birth fathers left shortly after they were born), who promptly move to a larger place with separate living quarters for the newlyweds. But the move disrupts Monica and David’s all-important daily routines and severs them from the Adult Life Skills Center they attended for years, curtailing hard-won pockets of independence.
At the same time, the relocation turns nightmarish for Maria Elena, who’s stressed by her husband’s recent retirement, home renovations that fall behind schedule, David’s sudden diabetes diagnosis and overwhelming fears that, in trying to protect her child, she is subconsciously preventing her from pursuing a “normal” lifestyle.
Codina establishes an effective back-and-forth dynamic between the parents, struggling to maintain the status quo, and the so-called “kids” (Monica is 35) who want to explore other options. The distinction between private and shared space becomes emotionally loaded as Monica and David freely discuss their plans and dissatisfactions when photographed in privacy, but revert to people-pleasing acquiescence once placed back in a social environment.
Throughout, Codina achieves a totally non-voyeuristic intimacy with her title subjects; David Fenster’s lensing occasionally cocoons the lovers in silhouette. Indeed, any awkwardness felt by viewers results from embarrassment over Monica’s and David’s naked outpourings of affection rather than discomfort with their disabilities.
Beautifully timed editing by Mary Manhardt and Paola Gutierrez-Ortiz assures that the pic never flags nor shortchanges its subjects, and the graceful cap-off under the final credits seems perfect.