- Movie Rating -

Gaby: A True Story (1987)

| October 30, 1987

Purely on instinct, I think I’ve built up a resistance to movies about people with handicaps.  That’s not a swipe at anyone’s personal ailments, but at filmmakers who tend to mangle these stories into soppy, manipulative personal appeals with lots of weepy music and inspirational dialogue.  I can remember some years back a movie called Amy, all about a deaf girl that the movie promised would be: “A motion picture your heart will never forget.”  Yeah.  Okay.

I kind of had that feeling walking into Gaby: A True Story, particularly the advanced notice that this was a movie about a young girl, Gabriela Brimmer, who was born with cerebral palsy.  Added to that were a series of photographs over the movie’s opening titles that reveal that her parents were Austrian Jewish refugees who fled the terror of Hitler for the safer spaces of Mexico City, all of which were accompanied by a pounding dramatic score by Maurice Jarre.  It took me a while to settle in.

And settle in I did.  The couple is Sari and Michael Brimmer (Liv Ullman and Robert Loggia) whose daughter is born some years after the war and during her infancy, was thought to have been a vegetable or just a child whose otherwise intelligent mind was trapped in a body that would not respond.  The answer came one day when Gaby knocked a spoon out of the maid’s hand and it was discovered that this limb was all that was functioning.  The girl would communicate with the outside world with her left foot, pointing to letters with her toe.

The film finds its center once director Luis Mandoki gets past the awkward scenes establishing Gaby’s difficult early years.  Once, the maid Florencia (played in a wonderful performance by Norma Aleandro) discovers that the child can communicate, we move past the set-up and into the real meat of the story.  

Gaby would prove herself to be a very dedicated student, pass her exams that allowed her to get out of the confines of special education classes and attend a public school.  She even went to The National Autonomous University of Mexico with a major in Sociology, eventually becoming a writer, most famously of the book that inspired this film.

What is special about the film is that Mandoki structures it beyond the “human endurance” nonsense.  Rachel Nevil plays Gaby, not as a sorrowful soul, but as a spirited young woman who has the normal emotional ups and downs and wants and needs of an able-bodied person.  Much of the movie focuses on her relationship with Fernando (a good performance by Lawrence Monoson), who also has cerebral palsy but whose potential romance with Gaby is curtailed by his dominating mother (Beatriz Sheridan).

None of this is presented with heavy gobs of sentimentality.  I can’t remember one triumph-of-the-spirit speech or treacly dialogue.  Much of the story focuses on those relationships not only with Fernando but also with Forencia whose whole life has been dedicated to Gaby, not just in her day-to-day functions but in fostering the mind of the person that she knows Gaby to be.

The failing, I think, is in the portrayal of Gaby’s parents.  Sari and Michael seem to stand by the standards for a story like this and let Florencia do all the work.  Perhaps Mandoki figured that too many inspirational figures would spoil the broth, but I might like to have seen more of how they would interact.  They themselves have fled from the horror of Adolf Hitler and raised a child who is, herself, feeling from the confines of a debilitating affliction.  How do they see their own circumstances through their child.  I wish the movie could have explored that.  There are moments of bonding here and there but nothing is really fleshed out.

Still, this is a movie that broke by resistance.  It’s not a movie about emotional highs and lows and crisis and aversion but about a specific individual who triumphed over her own body and made a name for herself as an artist, and it’s in a movie that refuses to over-dramatize that.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Drama