Castrated twice in “Sin City,” stabbed and beaten to death in “Bully,” shot in the face in “In the Bedroom“, and most recently a mentally abused emotional adolescent in this year’s “Sleepwalkers,” Nick Stahl is steadily carving out a niche for himself as the whipping boy of contemporary American independent cinema. For good or ill, Carlos Brooks‘s debut feature “Quid Pro Quo” allows Stahl to graduate from this bit of typecasting, making him less the passive recipient of violence, and more one who endures in its aftermath. A paraplegic Ira Glass-like public radio commentator, Stahl’s coyly named Isaac Knott is the survivor of a childhood automotive disaster that claimed the lives of his parents and the use of his legs.
As a PWD (person with disabilities), Knott navigates an AB (able-bodied) world, which the film portrays as alarmingly antagonistic. This is, we learn, a world in which hack cab drivers won’t stop for a man in a wheelchair (for fear of being mugged?) and in which no normal woman would knowingly walk into a blind date with a paraplegic. But it’s also one in which the wheelchair-bound and those around them talk incessantly about their disability and precious little else — and in which insidious, able-bodied, but nonetheless endearing perverts attempt to find ways of making themselves incapable of walking.
Tipped off by an anonymous e-mail, Knott becomes enmeshed in the underground world of “wannabes” — those ABs who jealously covet the life of the PWD, for reasons that seem complicated, but which the film more often characterizes as a shallow desire to sit down all the time. Soon, Knott locates the e-mailer, Sophie, (played by “The Departed“‘s Vera Farmiga), who quickly reveals her own ambitions for disability. “I already am paralyzed,” Sophie tells Isaac. “I’m just trapped in a walking person’s body.” However, her interest in Isaac is not merely clinical, but personal, and before long she’s trying to wrap her leg-braces around him and seeking instruction in wheelchair driving and PWD etiquette.
One of the principal quandaries of “Quid Pro Quo” is whether it’s intended to be a farce or a thriller, and the unevenness of the film’s tone at times keeps the film fairly engaging. The urgency of this question escalates as the film progresses, with Sophie and Isaac’s relationship becoming more interdependent and Isaac discovering a pair of what seem to be “magic shoes” that allow him to walk. The viewer is left to wonder if Brooks had seen Melody Gilbert‘s documentary “Whole,” about actual people who seek out medically unnecessary amputations, and sought to make a comedy out of it. But in fact, “Quid Pro Quo” is not at all funny, merely occasionally sarcastic, its plot a succession of half-baked pop-psych speculations and its dialogue a glib sampling of sub-Diablo Cody incredibility (“You think I’m fucked in the head.” “No, I think you’re gang-banged in the head.” “Okay, you are wigging.”).
To their credit, both Farmiga and Stahl work valiantly within the script’s constraints (especially the latter, who is film’s narrator and focus, but whose character feels strangely underwritten). For many, the sight of Farmiga vamping in a wheelchair will be a rare pleasure, though perhaps one of a more depraved nature than the filmmakers would like to believe. Though the film hints at sensitive and psychologically complex subject matter, it seems far more interested in wrapping its story up in a pretty and clever way than delving into rich emotional territory. Fortunately, this also means that “Quid Pro Quo” isn’t quite deep enough to be offensive.