In The Fundamentals of Caring, which debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently bought by Netflix, writer/director Rob Burnett aptly mixes black humor and genuine pathos to craft an engaging story about loss, love, and the pursuit of dream. The film stars Paul Rudd as Ben Benjamin, a bereaved writer who decides to enter a career as a caregiver while in the throes of a messy divorce.
Ben’s client is Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) and her 18-year-old son with Duchenne muscular dystrophy named Trevor (Craig Roberts). This film follows the formula of the “dramedy” pretty closely, but offers a number of fresh surprises that make it stand out from the crowd. Most crucially, the characters are fleshed out and well-acted, and as a result it is easy for the audience to empathize with their respective struggles.
The plot of The Fundamentals of Caring is fairly simple: Trevor has a fascination with tourist trap roadside attractions, and dreams of actually visiting one. But, he (and his mother) are afraid of having him leave the security of the house, so he has never actually seen any of them. Ben convinces them both that a road trip will be beneficial, and they’re off to see “The World’s Deepest Pit”.
Along the way they meet a few more characters, including a hitch-hiking runaway named Dot (a surprising Selena Gomez), and a very pregnant woman with car troubles named Peaches (Megan Ferguson). Dot is a crucial character in the story, as she serves as the first real crush Trevor has ever had, and much of the humor of the second act of the film is dedicated to playing out their burgeoning relationship and Trevor’s various insecurities and peccadilloes.
The true value of this film lay in the development of these characters and their interactions, which often pay off in powerful ways. Trevor uses an acerbic, foul-mouthed sense of humor to insult others and distance himself from any genuine connection. He also enjoys practical jokes, many of which are stunningly inappropriate (but still fun). Trevor is more than just a jokester, as there is a strong emotional aspect to his arc that involves confronting his father, who left his mother after learning of Trevor’s condition.
Similarly, Ben has a number of issues to deal with, and Burnett does a great job of doling out the information in short bursts. We are aware of his impending divorce (and his unwillingness to sign the divorce papers) from the very beginning of the film, but the underlying trauma responsible for the rift starts off vague. You have to appreciate the restraint that Burnett shows here, as it would have been simple to reveal this plot point early on in the film.
Ultimately, The Fundamentals of Caring is a wonderful combination of humor and melodrama. Each character is fascinating in their own right, and the major ones have their respective arcs and storylines. But, when these characters interact and play off each other, we are treated to some incredibly satisfying conclusions.
Furthermore, most of these pay-offs are quite clever, and some even subvert the audience’s expectations to great effect. This is a pleasant little film with an impressive amount of craft, and will reward those who seek it out on Netflix.