It’s starting to look like Netflix is the place to go if you want to launch an independent film. Why slink into theaters in the middle of the summer and get crushed by all of the blockbusters, when the streaming service will practically throw a party for your launch day? It’s a release model perfect for a peppy little film like The Fundamentals of Caring. On the exterior, it seems built to perfectly fit the indie sleeper hit model. It’s based on a book, has middleweight comedian Paul Rudd in the lead, and has a story based on life, love, and disease. It is next to impossible to make something like this unique anymore, and The Fundamentals of Caring knows this.
The story centers on Ben (Paul Rudd), a blocked writer in the midst of a divorce following the death of their son. Unsure of what to do to pay the bills, he enlists in a caretaking program. His first assignment is teenage muscular dystrophy victim Trevor (Craig Roberts). While their sardonic personalities gel together quickly, Ben becomes frustrated with Trevor’s closed minded views on life. In response, he takes Trevor on a road trip to see all of the roadside attractions he sees on TV. Along the way, they encounter Dot (Selena Gomez), a hitchhiker who decides to tag along to get herself to Colorado in pleasant company.
What makes this movie work is its willingness to cut corners within the buddy movie formula. This is particularly evident in the relationship between Ben and Trevor. In so many other films, there would be a fifteen minute stretch in the first act of watching these two butt heads. Considering the fact that Trevor is a fairly arrogant character already, it would have been easy to write him as completely unreasonable towards his new caregiver. Instead, the film just lets Rudd and Roberts develop the relationship naturally, and there’s some real magic in that. Rudd is nicely subdued here, dialing into his typical dopey charm with a bit more maturity. Roberts, on the other hand, is just plain fantastic. Trevor is a whirlwind of sarcasm, anxiety, and heart and Roberts manages to not overplay any one element. The film doesn’t put a magical veil over him because he’s disabled, letting him be just as flawed and complex as the other characters.
Writer/Director Rob Burnett is very crafty in his storytelling here. Often times, he will tease us with a more trite direction the film could go in, only to subvert it one moment later. He’s not a particularly stylish director, but he’s fantastic with pacing. All of the squabbles, celebrations, and general interactions here are perfectly timed, and play out for just long enough to be realistic. There’s no sludgy point in the middle of the story where we have to pretend all of our characters hate each other, just to watch them all rally back together. They simply act like real people, happy at sometimes, angry at others. It’s a very impressively characterized piece, and it bodes well for Burnett as a director.
Where the movie does start to fall apart is the gigantic miscasting of Selena Gomez. Dot is a bit rough around the edges, constantly cursing and playing the whole “I’m above authority tune” a little bit too loudly. Gomez’s inclusion feels like a stunt cast in order to add some unnecessary edge to things. She improves a bit throughout the film, but Gomez simply isn’t that natural of an actress. Especially compared to how authentic her co-stars are, she drives the momentum down a fair amount. Another wasted character, a pregnant woman named Peaches, comes in towards the end of the film. While Megan Ferguson does what she can with her time, she’s really not given enough to really gel with the rest of the cast. It’s a shame, as a truly great female character could have been the final ingredient in making this movie something truly memorable.
While Rob Burnett does not do a perfect job at assisting The Fundamentals of Caring, he keeps it in good enough shape to be one of the year’s more enjoyable movies. It’s mostly thanks to Rudd and Roberts. Whenever the film is simply letting them interact, it is pure gold. This is a film that knows which clichés to keep, and which ones to dump which is a more valuable skill than one may give it credit for. It’s the perfect movie to wrap up in a blanket and enjoy on a lonely Saturday night, and thankfully since it is on Netflix that is exactly what you can do.