Adults Living with Down Syndrome Strive for Independence in 'The Grown-Ups'

Legal Limitations on Conscious Adults Come to Light

By POV Communications, August 03, 2017

The Cast of the Grwon-ups is pictured next to a yellow school bus.

The 30th season of POV continues with The Grown-Ups, a glimpse into the lives of adults in Chile living with Down syndrome from director Maite Alberdi. With both humor and heartbreak, the film illuminates legal, financial and societal restrictions that diminish the freedoms of Chile’s developmentally disabled population.

The Grown-Ups will have its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on Monday, September 4, 2017 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). POV is American television's longest-running independent documentary series, now in its 30th season. The Grown-Ups is a copresentation with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB).

Alberdi places the viewer in a center for individuals with Down syndrome, where the film’s main characters attend school and staff an in-house catering business. One of the regular therapy sessions the middle-aged students attend takes place in a room with a sign that reads, “Taller Adultez Consciente,” Spanish for “Conscious Adult Workshop.”

Inside, counselors help students cultivate a sense of self-worth and independence. However, the experiences of the central characters in the outside world seldom reflect those lessons. “I’m sick of school. So bored. I’ve been here for 40 years… I can’t do the same thing my whole life.” So says Anita, an older woman and longtime trainee who provides the opening narration to the film. Yet the film is often humorous and joyful. During a race for class president, one student tersely accuses another of acting like the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In another scene, Anita acts out her boyfriend’s birthday cake related fantasy.

Indeed, Anita is composed yet sullen—able to conceive of a more fulfilled existence, but also painfully aware of the obstacles keeping her from it. Anita is dating Andrés, another member of the center. Aside from the occasional lovers’ quarrel, they are sweetly devoted to each other. After Anita’s father dies, Andrés proposes and asks her to move in with him. That introduces the first of many heart-wrenching limitations on the students: a priest tells Andrés that while some sympathetic churches will host wedding ceremonies for couples with Down syndrome, their union will never be legally recognized in Chile.

In another difficult scene, Anita reveals that she has entered menopause and no longer has the option to have a child. She considers adoption, but it’s suggested that this, too, would be severely restricted or altogether prohibited under Chilean law.

Ricardo, a third member of the center, aspires to become financially independent through his work in both the catering department and at a nearby assisted living facility. He’s a clear leader in the kitchen, where, according to Anita, he “gives directions all day long,” and he shows care, patience and professionalism at the nursing home even when faced with difficult residents.

But like Anita and Andrés, Ricardo is unable to achieve a level of independence most people take for granted. Ricardo’s combined wages from these two positions amount to less than 30 dollars per month. A counselor points out the wide gulf between this figure and the roughly 500 dollars per month Ricardo would require to live on his own. “I have two jobs but I’m really tired. I work and work, but I don’t earn anything, and I don’t know what to do,” Ricardo despairs at one point.

The Grown-Ups concludes with Anita and Andrés’ involuntary separation. Fearing that the relationship is creating too much anxiety in Andrés’ life, his family decides to end his stay at the training center and move him to a relative’s home elsewhere in the country. This serves as a final stark reminder that the power to make life-altering and potentially devastating decisions is out of the hands of all of the film’s subjects.

“The unforgettable characters at the center of this film highlight important questions about the constraints placed on those deemed ‘less than’ by various societal institutions,” said POV executive producer Chris White. “A remarkable and impassioned work, it forces us to consider the pain that can be imposed by varying notions of how much freedom is appropriate for those living with developmental disabilities.” The Grown-Ups will stream online on in concurrence with its broadcast.

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