Love story elicits tears and raises questions
What a lovely documentary. “Monica & David’’ is the portrait of two adults with Down syndrome who fall in love, get married, and live together. He’s the loyal guy who ignored her rebuffs and now owns her heart, she’s the woman who only pretends to be his taskmaster. He’s her “Prince Charming,’’ she’s his “Winnie the Pooh,’’ “Princess,’’ and “Little Baby’’ all in one. Monica and David snuggle on the couch, watching sports and teasing each other with affectionate nicknames.
You might think the HBO movie, tonight at 8, is too much of a tear-jerker — and it certainly doesn’t avoid emotional prodding, including a tinkling piano on the soundtrack to heighten the sweetness. We watch moving wedding-rehearsal scenes of Monica and David being coached by their parents, awkwardly trying to fit rings on their fingers; we see Monica looking so vulnerable at her gown-fitting, trying to walk in fancy shoes while Monica’s mother talks about how her daughter is “the light of my life.’’ We watch their wedding unfold like a gauzy dream, as David’s mother dances like a proud mama bear with her arms wrapped around her son.
Reader, I cried.
In one devastating scene later in the movie, Monica writes a letter on lined notebook paper to her father, with whom she hasn’t had contact in years. “You never call me at my birthday. You always make me cry. . . . I don’t like you no more. You broke my heart. Love, your daughter, Monica.’’ At the kitchen table, Monica is sad, until David gets up in her face and pulls a smile out of her.
But what makes director Alexandra Codina’s “Monica & David’’ so much more than an affecting sentimental journey is the question mark that hangs over everything we see. While the joy in the church is palpable, while the love that Monica and David’s family feels for them is fierce and powerful, the future gnaws. What will happen next for the newlyweds, whose intellectual disability prevents them from true independence? In their 30s, they’re not equipped to live alone or get jobs, and they depend on the devoted and willing care of Monica’s mother and stepfather. In one scene, Monica and David hold a baby, wondering about whether they will ever become parents. We can feel the impossibility of the situation, and the fragility of their hopes.
Codina stays very close to all the characters in the movie, and you feel a nice intimacy with them — perhaps because Codina is Monica’s cousin. At one point, Codina gives us parallel scenes of each mother contemplating that most difficult of thoughts — what will happen to their child once there are no parents around to care for them. Both mothers begin to explore that future, and then fight against the subject until they have to stop talking. It’s heartbreaking. But then Codina also delivers affectionate comic relief in the characters’ mundane lives, as her camera lingers over Monica’s innocent love of order among her toiletries and in making her bed.
As the movie points out, in 1983 those with Down syndrome had a life expectancy of 25. Now, “with societal changes and medical advances,’’ the life expectancy has risen to 60. “Monica & David’’ gracefully presents the world of people with Down syndrome at a crossroads, as embodied by these two individuals and their sweet, life-affirming love.