By William Engel
Director Lisa France captivated the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival audiences with “Roll With Me”, a sobering yet inspiring look at a disabled man’s attempt to overcome his limitations and accomplish something extraordinary.
The documentary follows Gabriel Cordell, a newly sober paraplegic who sets out to be the first person to roll across the United States in a wheelchair. He’s joined by a support crew who films his journey every step of the way, and his nephew Chris, a troubled youth with a life defined by hard narcotics and gang activity. The journey, Gabriel hopes, will inspire Chris to ditch his lifestyle of crime and clean up his act.
The beginning of the film is hindered by a few pacing and storytelling issues. Gabriel’s aspirations to become an actor prior to becoming a paraplegic are never brought up again after the five minute mark, and his struggles with drug addiction are more or less resolved by the time the journey across the United States begins. His reliance on drugs becomes a bit of an issue late in the film, but I would have liked to see more footage detailing how he managed to kick his addiction.
The film is at its strongest when it delves into the relationship between Gabriel and his nephew, Chris. The interactions we see are just as heartfelt as you’d imagine, but the film doesn’t try to spin or sugarcoat the harsh reality of Chris’s situation. Halfway through the movie, Gabriel bluntly tells him that he’ll have no choice but to “wash his hands” of his nephew if he continues to engage in gang activity after the trip is over.
At the same time, the film doesn’t present Chris as the only person who needs to change and improve himself. Along the way, Gabriel is caught smoking marijuana in order to relieve his pain, which sparks an argument between him and his nephew. Chris claims that it was hypocritical of Gabriel to forbid him from using drugs of any kind on the trip, while making an exception for himself.
That’s something I have to admire about the film. Gabriel is framed as someone who has accomplished a lot to be proud of, but who’s still a flawed human being who can make mistakes. The end of his journey across the country doesn’t mark the end of his journey to become a better person; that journey will continue for the rest of his life.
I would also be remiss not to mention the cinematography. There are some absolutely gorgeous shots in this movie, particularly one of Gabriel wheeling away from the horizon during a sunset. However, the camera captures more than just photogenic heroism. Near the beginning, there are some cringe-inducing prolonged shots of Gabriel struggling to get into his wheelchair, hammering home the fact that, for him, even his mundane daily routine is a struggle to get through.
Most importantly, Gabriel’s life story is treated with both the dignity and the compassion that it deserves. If you’re looking for a sincere, condescension-free documentary about the struggles of the disabled, Roll With Me is definitely worth a look.
For more information and follow the film go here.