Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski admits Monica and David make their bed much more competently than she and her wife do.
"This new generation [of people with Down syndrome] wants what most adults want—love, work, and independence."
First-time director Alexandra Codina's Monica & David provides a documentary look at the first year of the title couple's marriage. Each living with Down syndrome, they pursue the aforementioned goals—love, work, and independence—with the help of their supportive, but protective, parents.
If, like me, you haven't had the occasion to learn much about Down syndrome before, Monica & David offers a fully engrossing 67-minute immersion in its world. Even if you have no particular interest in Down syndrome, it's a solid documentary and an incredibly sweet love story.
Facts of the Case
Codina starts to roll her documentary camera a couple of weeks before her cousin Monica's upcoming nuptials and sticks with the subject through the couple's first anniversary. That first year brings its stresses, not just for Monica and David, but for their parents as well—especially Monica's mother, Maria Elena, and stepfather, Bob, with whom they live. They, and the film, navigate the wedding, the honeymoon, a big move, a health scare, and hopes for babies and employment.
The first thing we see in Monica & David is a text screen providing one enlightening fact that contextualizes the film perfectly: "In 1983, life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was 25 years. With societal changes and medical advances, today it is 60." That vast lengthening of life in the last generation has brought new opportunities and challenges for people with Down syndrome and their families, which Monica & David illustrates beautifully through a personal story without the need for talking-head interviews with experts.
Living longer means more time for pursuing and enjoying experiences we tend to have beyond our early twenties, like marriage—the main focus of this documentary. Starting their courtship in the Adult Life Skills class where they met, Monica and David have a love story with many familiar elements: boy meets girl, girl has other boyfriend, and boy waits in the wings and eventually gets girl. Like lots of other couples, they want a lavish wedding, they want to look great, and they want everything to go right on the big day.
While displaying the commonalities between Monica and David's love story and the love stories of those without Down syndrome, Codina is careful not to falsely universalize their experiences. Their difference from other couples is also ever-present in their daily lives, as they continue to live with Monica's parents, who even accompany them on their California honeymoon. Many of their desires and instincts as a newlywed couple are thwarted by their Down syndrome, society's perception of it, or some combination of the two. David wants to get a job to earn money for his family, but employment for people with Down syndrome is scarce, and Maria Elena worries about the cruelties that having a job could expose David to. Monica talks about having babies, but no one in the family thinks that she and David are capable of raising children.
Despite these challenges, what Monica & David communicates so well is what this couple with Down syndrome is capable of, especially when people believe in them and trust them with a little responsibility. It becomes clear—somewhat counter-intuitively—that supportive and involved family members are key to enabling people with Down syndrome to live as independent adults, and Monica and David are lucky to have this kind of family. As Monica's stepfather says, "David's mother and Maria have really carved out that these kids need to have a life of their own, and they're both trying to do that." Finding the right balance between aid and independence is a task these parents struggle with every day, and the worry that looms over their lives—another consequence of the aforementioned extended lifespan of people with Down syndrome—is what will happen to that balance after their own deaths.
As usual, Docurama does a great job with this DVD release. One doesn't expect any audiovisual fireworks from a documentary of this sort, but the image is always clear and the sound audible—with helpful subtitles when things get muddy. Further, the disc provides Audio Description Modes in both English and Spanish for the visually impaired. Extras are quite interesting, including five deleted scenes (running around two minutes each) that expand the film's portrait of the title couple and their families. We see Monica and David acting in a play, more footage from their wedding, an illuminating moment from their honeymoon, thoughts form Maria Elena about stress, and one more scene of the two just hanging out together. There's also a great 8-minute documentary short, "Employment in the Community," that profiles two people with Down syndrome who are excelling at their jobs in a restaurant and a pet store. The short includes this sentiment from a disability activist, who talks about the shortage of work for people with developmental disabilities: "There's no disabled person that I know anywhere that wants to get a job because they're a disabled person. Everybody I know wants meaningful work. They want to get the job because they earned the job and because they can do the job."
In addition to providing a fascinating bit of education about Down syndrome, Monica and David is worth seeing as a profile of a unique and compelling romance. The love and devotion between these two is so palpable on screen. As a viewer, it's hard to say how much this bond has to do with Down syndrome (the shared experiences it provides them, the intense amount of time together it affords), but the question itself eventually drops away as the documentary immerses you in their lives.
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