Leave it to Austin's own Fantastic Fest 2013 to present indie genre films ranging from freakishly fun, horrifically bizarre, to downright controversial. No, there wasn't a Human Centipede to contend with this year, but there was a Detective Downs. As the name implies, this comedy/mystery stars a "hardboiled detective" with Down's Syndrome. One has to ask the question, is this film exploitative?
When I first heard about this movie I laughed, thinking it a joke. Then I found out it really was a legitimate movie screening at Fantastic Fest, and I cringed. How could a movie starring an actor who actually has Down's Syndrome playing a character who has Down's Syndrome and lives in a group home and wears a detective costume, not be offensively inappropriate and exploitative?
Then I saw Detective Downs, and despite my reservations, I kind of liked it. It didn't feel completely exploitative; it felt fun and silly and a little sentimental. A Norwegian film, Detective Downs stars the charismatic Svein Andre Hofso Myhre as Robert. Robert is an adult living in a group home with Down's Syndrome. He goes around in a tan trench coat and a rimmed hat pulled down low on his forehead, much like the hard boiled movie detectives of the '40s and '50s.
He has his own method for solving crime, using empathy. He hasn't had any clients as most people see that he has Down's Syndrome and immediately dismiss him as a joke. But Robert is stubborn and determined, and when he finally gets hired to find a missing millionaire, his method and his reputation are put to the test.
This is a funny movie. It has some great physical comedy augmented by the natural physiognomy of Robert. This is what gives me pause when discussing the merits of the film in relation to exploitation. There are moments when I'm just plain embarrassed for the character, and others when I feel the audience is invited to laugh at him, not with him.
Myhre has a childlike innocence that makes his character both likeable and sympathetic, but it also invites a certain patronage from the audience; a condescension. Did I like Detective Downs? Yes. Did I feel a little guilty about liking it? Absolutely.
This is an interesting film in that it skirts the line between effective comedy and exploitative gimmick, and I think it will be decided by individual feeling in the end. I thought it was a well-made comedy/mystery on the whole, but like I said, there's sometimes an uneasy feeling that Robert's disability is a gimmick being exploited for laughs.
I would like to think Norwegian filmmakers and director Bard Breien had the best intentions, and that Detective Downs is a celebration of people's difference instead of an exploitation of them.