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Reelabilities Film Festival 2024 Prepares To Celebrate Disabled Talent And Stories

by moneylab

On April 3, the 16th annual ReelAbilities Film Festival will throw open its doors once more to showcase burgeoning talent and mesmeric storytelling from both within and about the disability community.

Running through to April 10, the festival represents a nationwide celebration of disability-themed narrative and documentary films but will, as ever, be centered in New York at a series of venues across the city including the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, DCTV Firehouse Cinema, Chelsea Factory, Museum of the Moving Image and Jacob Burns Film Center. Some additional screenings and events will also take place online.

ReelAbilities is undoubtedly the largest film festival focusing on disability in the U.S. and prides itself on prioritizing authentic, first-person narratives from inside the community that portray disability responsibly alongside an original creative flourish. With this in mind, this year’s edition finds itself bookended by two equally thought-provoking but ultimately very different dramatizations slated for opening and closing night.


Firstly, the festivities get underway on opening night at the Times Center in Manhattan with the New York premiere of EZRA — director Tony Goldwyn’s heart-warming multi-generational tale about how a father Max played by Bobby Cannavale forges a deeper and more meaningful connection with his 11-year-old son on the autism spectrum – the eponymous Ezra – during a madcap road trip that the pair embark on. The film’s star-studded cast includes the likes of Robert De Niro portraying Ezra’s grandfather Stan and Whoopi Goldberg. The latter is set to be this year’s ReelAbilities honoree on account of her work over the years on many important social causes whilst also speaking out about disability rights and her own journey with dyslexia.

Alongside the star names, the movie also sees an acting debut for William Fitzgerald a young man on the autism spectrum authentically cast as the title character. Adding to the authenticity, the inspiration for the film came from screenwriter Tony Spiridakis’ own experiences parenting a son on the autism spectrum (now aged 24) and realizing that, rather than pushing back, he could learn to embrace the uniqueness of his son’s neurodiversity.


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In the movie’s press pack, Spiridakis recounts, “I realized this was not my son’s issue at all. It was mine. It took a long while for that lightbulb to go off in my head, similar to Max, that as a father, I wasn’t supposed to find a solution to this, that my son was just wired differently and in a wonderful way. And that changed everything. I wanted to share that story and I wanted to be real about it, to have the audience travel with Max as he reaches the point where he realizes he will probably never stop worrying about Ezra, but Ezra is going to be OK. Ezra is going to surprise him in ways he never imagined and they will find their path together.”

Good Bad Things

Far removed from the impact of neurodiverse kids on families – ReelAbilities closing night feature Good Bad Things deals with the somewhat taboo and underdiscussed topic of online dating with a disability. The movie’s central protagonist Danny played by Danny Kurzmann (pictured top) lives with muscular dystrophy and runs a struggling advertising agency.

When his agency tries to capture the business of a major online dating app – Danny decides to combine market research with an attempt to resuscitate his ailing love life which has been in the doldrums following an upsetting break-up. On the app, he meets charming aspiring photographer Madi played by Jessica Parker Kennedy but will his self-perception and that of the world around him as a young disabled man threaten to derail the burgeoning romance?

Good Bad Things is the directorial debut of writer Shane Stanger who co-wrote the indie feature alongside long-time friend Kurzmann. Ramy star Steve Way served as an Executive Producer. The movie wonderfully juxtaposes familiar elements from life and the silver screen such as the romcom format and the insecurity-fuelling world of dating apps alongside aspects rarely witnessed before such as a highly likable lead protagonist with unique physicality forging ahead in life and love.

During a podcast last month with the Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy Society, which represents individuals living with the same condition as Kurzmann himself, the first-time actor commented:

“Recently, we realized it is more than a film. It’s a message that we are now able to share that I don’t think has been heard, especially with the disability theme. We watch disabled content and stories and we feel moved but not in a powerful positive way. It’s always like a deficit or an inspiration. We feel like we can’t connect because it’s so externalized from what we feel our real lives are — which I believe, isn’t the truth. We as disabled people are powerful and perfect in our own way and this is just that story — that it’s not a deficit. That we can do what we put our mind to and we are that powerful.”

Growing impact

This year’s edition of the festival includes 12 features and 14 shorts in the film lineup. Close to 60%of the films are world, U.S. and New York premieres. Fifty percent are made by women filmmakers whilst, at 42%, this year includes a record number of U.S.-produced feature films.

Other productions to keep an eye out for over the festival week include LA Lucha from-award winning documentary filmmaker Violeta Ayala which chronicles Bolivia’s nascent disability rights movement and Dear Ani which depicts Keith Wasserman’s 20-year epic mental health journey to befriend music icon and Grammy award-winner Ani DiFranco – treating the important topic of mental health in a highly original way.

In 2024, there would also appear to be no abating of the “CODA effect with a record number of festival submissions and selections coming from films about hearing loss or the deaf community.

These include Loud Love which documents deaf gay couple Alan And Brian’s attempt to raise two hearing children, Name Me Lawand a documentary about a deaf Kurdish boy seeking self-expression, Okthanksbye about two young deaf girls embarking on a transformative road trip and Rally Caps which features a boy who has recently undergone cochlear implant surgery playing in a baseball team.

Issac Zablocki is the co-founder of ReelAbilities with the former film producer having helped launch the first edition of the ReelAbilities Film Festival back in 2007. With the bigger picture in mind, though acknowledging that more work needs to be done to make the wider film industry more disability-inclusive, Zablocki feels that things are trending in the right direction and that ReelAbilities should continue to play its part in maintaining momentum.

“These days there are so many different resources, programs and networks specifically dedicated to developing films related to disability that simply didn’t exist in the past and so we’re hoping to see more a more of these fantastic films in the future,” he says.

However, according to Zablocki, it’s not just about amplifying marginalized voices but recognizing audience trends and market forces as well.

“Nowadays, there’s certainly more appetite and demand for disability-focused stories,” explains Zablocki. “People in the industry used to think that stories about people with disabilities would never sell but the reality is that they are interesting and captivating for so many people and we’re really seeing the impact of that.”

Hopefully, that will mean that by next year, more hidden gems of powerful untold stories will be unearthed but for now, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show!

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