Film title translations may vary considerably from region to region, but rarely do they contradict each other entirely. Branded “The Grown-Ups” for the international festival circuit, Chilean documentarian Maite Alberdi’s third feature goes by “Los niños” (“The Children”) on its home turf. Either way, the title is laced with irony, since this gently stirring, empathetic study of middle-aged students at a school for Down’s Syndrome children shows them to be stuck in a tragic state of limbo: Mature enough to want the pressures and privileges of independent adulthood, yet emotionally and financially ill-equipped to pursue them alone, they’re ultimately failed by a system that treats them as homogeneously disabled. Though Alberdi’s short, audience-friendly film offers plenty of sweetness and light observational humor, the sad anger of its message still burns through; international distribution, particularly on VOD platforms, is quite feasible.
“Who are we? Conscious adults,” the film’s four principal subjects recite as a constant mantra at the group therapy sessions arranged for them by the school — a statement of defiance that, however kindly encouraged by their supervisors, only they appear to fully believe. Aided by the clean, no-nonsense clarity of Menno Boerema and Juan Eduardo Murillo’s editing, “The Grown-Ups” works swiftly to differentiate between the strong individuals in this quartet, who spend most of their time training and working in the school’s catering department — yet not toward any identified qualification or reward.
The most immediately charismatic of the four is Anita, a bright, self-confident woman yearning to begin a new life free of her parents’ constant, unyielding guardianship and the numbing routine of the kitchen — strictures which, however well-intended, are beginning to have an effect more oppressive than protective. Her exasperation is emboldened into vocal self-assertion by an increasingly tender romance with the gentlemanly Andres, a fellow Down’s Syndrome classmate who appears to understand her emotional needs better than her elders; together, they dream of marrying and raising a family. (Through adoption, Anita is quick to clarify, explaining that she is past menopause; that she recognizes such practicalities amid otherwise far-fetched idealism is illustrative of her unusual, intermediate stage of personal development.) Together, the two plan their wedding with poignant excitement, even going so far as to shop for rings, with a critical legal cloud hanging over them: In Chile, adults are forbidden from marrying if they are judged to have the mental maturity of a minor.
Who gets to make that call, and by what criteria, is the question Alberdi invites audiences to consider, or reconsider: The longer we spend in the company of these people, the clearer it seems that they should be treated on a case-by-case basis. Anita and Andres, for example, are more high-functioning and less outwardly child-like than Rita, an endearingly exuberant but fragile 45-year-old with a limited mastery of physical boundaries and a penchant for Barbie dolls. At more or less the opposite end of the spectrum is the sensible, studious Ricardo, voted the group’s class president, who holds a part-time job as a carer at an old-age home and is eager to save money for a self-sufficient future. The disparity between his needs in the latter department and his pocket-money income, once revealed, is heartbreaking; among other matters, the film tacitly calls for employment reform for those with learning difficulties.
As the dominant arc of Andres and Anita’s relationship hits complications beyond their control, “The Grown-Ups” veers into outright tear-jerker territory, though not at the expense of its emotional authenticity. Several intimate or wholly joyous set-pieces — the chaste lovers’ first bedroom encounter, for example, or a surprise birthday-cake dance routine — both brighten the tone and, more crucially, give the subjects added nuance and definition. They are finally treated as equal, many-shaded personalities, not just passive, victimized case studies. Pablo Valdes’s airy, unobstrusive lensing often counters their darker mood swings with the pastel party-balloon shades that dominate their environment, visually emphasizing a world that tries to mollify their anger. Perhaps Miguel Miranda and Jose Miguel Tabar’s perkily whimsical score was similarly intended, yet it’s the film’s chief misstep, with tip-toeing piano strains that risk infantilizing these grown-ups along with everyone else around them.