The beauty of Sophie Goodhart’s “My Blind Brother” is that it isn’t the jet-black megadose of cringe comedy that anyone else might spin from the same premise. This is a story that has all the makings of a Todd Solondz movie, and — in the early going — it often feels like it’s on the verge of becoming one. But Goodhart, who’s been preparing for this debut feature since her short of the same name played at Cannes in 2003, isn’t interested in anything so savage and cynical. On the contrary, she’s reached into the darkness and returned with a deeply humane and frequently hilarious comedy that laughs at the fine line between kindness and pity.
Bill (Nick Kroll) is a middle-aged manager of an Ohio copy store who’s spent the brunt of his life living in the shadow of his very capable blind brother, Robbie (Adam Scott). Initially, the siblings seem like an indomitable team; a living testament to the power of the fraternal bond. The pair of them are first introduced rounding the final corner of a charity marathon, Bill leading Robbie by the adorable red ribbon that ripples in the wind between them. Only after they cross the finish line (passing under a banner that screams “Congratulations, Robbie!”) do we realize that Bill is less of a teammate than he is a glorified guide dog, abandoned to smoke some weed behind a port-a-potty while his brother puffs his chest for the cameras and thanks God for showing him the way.
Robbie, it turns out, is kind of a titanic asshole. He’s a walking (and running and swimming) puff piece for the local news, and it’s clear that whatever money these feats of endurance raise for charity isn’t half as valuable as the self-worth that they empower the handicapped man to raise for himself. The whole town gathers to cheer him on. And Bill… well, Bill’s parents barely acknowledge his existence. A common refrain from “Walk Hard” comes to mind: “The wrong kid died!”
One night, drinking his troubles away at a bar near his house after vowing never to help his brother again, Bill meets a girl who’s even more twisted up than he is. Her name is Rose (Jenny Slate), and her ex-boyfriend — too distraught by their breakup to look both ways — has recently been flattened to death by a truck. Consumed by guilt, Rose plans to rededicate her life to doing good things for other people. The next morning, after she and Bill enjoy a magical few hours of dippy banter and drunken sex, she slips off to follow through on her pledge. Her first volunteer job: helping Robbie train for his next challenge. She tries to wipe some foam off his sleeve, he thinks she’s coming on to him, she feels too guilty to clear the air, and an incredibly awkward love triangle is born.
Goodhart’s brilliant cast elevates some very breezy material into something that will resonate with siblings of all sorts and sightedness, and even the minor characters leave a mark (Zoe Kazan is particularly on point as Rose’s best friend, displaying the same comic chops that helped make “What If” such an unexpected delight). But Rose is the glue that holds this whole thing together; without her, the resentment between Bill and Robbie would barely be enough to sustain an SNL sketch, let alone a 90-minute movie.
At once both morbidly goofy and sincerely distressed, Slate’s layered performance prevents Rose from becoming one of those female characters who exists for no other reason than to motivate change amongst the male ones. It’s so much fun watching her tumble down the slippery slope of her own guilt, “My Blind Brother” gently asserting that ugly emotions often curdle into contempt as soon as people try to bury them.
The boys are strong as well: Kroll is a wholly believable sad sack, perfect as a guy who’s spent so long telling himself that he’s lazy and resentful that it’s on the verge of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Scott gets to have a lot more fun as Robbie, repurposing his delusional asshole persona from “Stepbrothers,” sprinkling it with some of Tom Cruise’s manic energy (when Scott slips on his shades, it’s like he’s doing some all-time great “Rain Man” cos-play), and wrapping the whole shebang around a surprisingly gooey core. Goodhart reserves an equal degree of empathy for all of her characters, allowing her film to be funny without ever becoming cruel. There are, of course, scenes that milk laughs from Robbie’s disability, but “My Blind Brother” never loses sight of how the things that people are afraid to change about themselves are a lot more fun to mock than the things that they can’t.
“My Blind Brother” screened this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Starz will release it in theaters and on VOD later this year.