Jenny Slate’s preferred brand of jeans may be public knowledge, but don’t ask her what she’s wearing to the world premiere of her latest movie. After a SXSW screening of My Blind Brother at the Topfer Theatre in Austin, a young woman kicked off the audience portion of the q&a by telling Slate and her co-star Zoe Kazan that she loved their style. Then she asked what brands they were wearing.
“That’s a really important artistic question,” scolded Kazan, who was wearing a floral dress with a large black bow at the collar. “So glad that you watched the movie and took away so much.”
“Yeah,” Slate chimed in. “Women love to be asked more about their clothes than their work. We’re dolls. We made a wish to come alive.”
It was clear they weren’t going to give up their wardrobe secrets, so their co-star Nick Kroll stepped in. “This is Old Navy, top to bottom,” he said of his outfit. “If anyone has a chance, Old Navy has a great deal on double-breasted cashmere sweater blazers. You gotta get over there.”
The audience erupted into applause.
Okay, so let’s talk about the movie. In it, Kroll plays Bill, another version of the listless but ultimately lovable sadsack that the Kroll Show comic played in Adult Beginners. In fact, swimming factors into this one as well: When he’s not smoking weed and watching tv on the couch, Bill is begrudgingly helping his blind brother Robbie (Adam Scott) train for marathons and—the latest— a swim across a lake in their Ohio town. Robbie is loved by the local media and adored by his parents, and he even gets Rose (Jenny Slate) to pity date him. Everyone but Bill seems to be, well, blind to that fact that he’s kind of a dick.
The film is an outgrowth of a short that director Sophie Goodhart shot in 2002. The short, she confessed, was based on personal experience. “My sister was diagnosed with MS when I was in my early 20s and I had this sort of really embarrassing response, after the initial sadness and shock, of being jealous,” she told the crowd. “I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I am really horrible. I am a dark person.’” For the movie, she weaved in the story of Rose (Slate), who is racked with guilt because her boyfriend got struck and killed by a bus while she was dumping him over his ugly nipples. Her identity crisis leads to a love triangle with the brothers. All of which makes for a “delicious melting pot of resentment and guilt and shame,” Goodhart noted.
The degree to which those ingredients exist here are definitely unusual for a comedy. We’re unsure whether to laugh or cringe when Bill, annoyed by his blind brother’s constant condescension and sense of entitlement, leaves a cabinet door open for him to bang his head on. Who do we sympathize with here? It’s not often that blind people are portrayed as douchebags.
Given the sometimes irreverent way Robbie’s affliction is treated, there was bound to be some pushback. One audience member asked whether Goodhart had considered casting blind actors for characters like GT, a b-boy (played by sighted actor Charlie Hewson) that Goodhart said was based on a blind drug dealer she knew in New York. She explained that there weren’t many blind actors in Ohio, though some were used as extras. And besides, she was a fan of Hewson’s work.
Another audience member asked whether any of the actors had family members “with handicaps” that would allow them to empathize with some of the “struggles and discrimination” such people face.
Kazan fielded the response, her voice quivering a bit: “I think there’s a reason that ‘differently abled’ is becoming something that people say, which is that we have different sorts of tool kits that we come with to the world. I think everybody up here has felt like, um, an outsider at certain points and has felt special at certain points. I don’t think you have to have any particular personal experience to feel empathy or that we’re all human and capable of cruelty and capable of kindness. I think that Sophie made a really cool movie about people and that the blindness, even though it’s in the title and obviously part of what the movie is about, is not the front and center of what this movie is really talking about.”
Which might be why, at another event, an audience member asked the cast members, “Any plans for a sequel, My Deaf Sister?”