Chris Bunton, Jerome Pride, Digby Webster, Audrey O’Connor, Deborah Jones
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…demands a place among the year’s best efforts.
Danny is a young gymnast born with Down Syndrome. He regularly attends workshops run by RUCKUS, a real-life Sydney-based disability performance troupe, and he wants retired boxer and gym owner John to teach him how to fight.
On the surface, this feels like your everyday underdog boxing drama, albeit with the same casting ideas that went into Crispin Glover’s What Is It? Of course, directly comparing this to that is doing this film a serious disservice, as the diverse casting is not just an attempt to shock the audience, it also ends up adding to a film that outright demands a place among the year’s best efforts.
The nucleus of the story is Chris Bunton as Danny and Jerome Pride as John, whose protégé-mentor relationship reveals some unexpected chuckles early on. It’s not every day you see a working friendship build off the back of one knocking the other out cold. It taps into familiar sports tropes, but just under the surface, Kairos reveals something quite different. Over time, as the secret that ties them together gets closer and closer to breaking, their connection turns into an example of what life while disabled ultimately looks like.
With Audrey O’Connor as Danny’s on-again-off-again love interest and Digby Webster as Danny’s scene-stealing brother-in-tow, the film knows how to walk the walk in telling a story about disability with the right amount of empathy. To that end, the way it shows Danny’s reality, his interactions with others, and the alternating levels of condescension and sheer dicketry he puts up with day-to-day hit, really close to home.
Disability acceptance may have gotten better in leaps and bounds, to the point where the highest-grossing Aussie film of the year features a prominent character with Down Syndrome, but there is still a lot to be done.
But beyond the boxing drama, the domestic arguments, and the thankfully healthy sense of humour on offer, this film is at its best when it gets nice and cerebral. The depiction of Danny’s psychology is all kinds of heart-breaking, showing him emotionally distancing himself from others with Down’s, trying to fit into ‘normal’ society with disappointing results, and basically wishing that he wasn’t the way he is. And when even those around him, who are supposed to be in his corner, are also the ones letting him down the most, it can be hard not to get choked up at how much this promising young man has to deal with. “I’m surprised he’s so high-functioning” is a line that should strike a nerve with anyone out there with – or who helps take care of someone with – a disability.
Part sports drama, part domestic comedy, and all oneiric masterpiece, Kairos is the kind of film that needs to exist. It handles the basics of its genres very smoothly, and when it goes full visual storytelling, it manages to articulate a lot of the intricacies of the disabled experience, to the point where this has the potential to do a lot of good.