Any synopsis of My Blind Brother sounds like a description for an offensive Saturday Night Live sketch used to fill out the end of the broadcast, so bear with. Robbie (Adam Scott) is a narcissistic blind man intent on gaining small-town glory by running marathons or swimming a lake. His older brother, Bill (Nick Kroll), acts as his guide during these feats but gets none of the recognition. Robbie is constantly ready to be featured in inspirational local news segments, while Bill is a chronic underachiever, working a crap hourly job and living only to support his brother.
Bitter about the latest wave of attention for Robbie, Bill gets drunk and hooks up with a fellow sad-sack: Rose (Jenny Slate). They meet at the wake for Rose’s boyfriend. Well, ex-boyfriend. Rose was in the midst of dumping him as he was hit by a bus, and has decided she needs to atone by committing her life to helping other people. After declining to give Bill her number, she finds a gig by volunteering with the blind. She quickly finds herself dating Robbie and it’s not clear whether it’s an act of pity or another attempt at selflessness.
The film follows their transformation into an uncomfortable trio. Bill is enlisted to judge whether Rose is hot (of course Robbie cares), and soon he’s joining them on double dates. Robbie’s blindness lets the subtext seen in all rom-com love triangles become pantomime: Bill and Rose have dramatic, silent arguments around him as he insults waiters and listens to his own news coverage.
Kroll and Scott give great performances here, but Slate is the heart of the film. It’s easy to see that Robbie is a self-absorbed asshole, but her reluctance to ditch him for Bill is understandable. What kind of monster would kill their last boyfriend, only to turn around and dump the disabled man she’s dating? Slate nails Rose’s guilt and sorrow, but also her selfish desire to be seen as a good person. It’s clear that her attempts to assuage her guilt are only going to hurt more people, but she can’t stop trying to fix everything through misguided self-sacrifice.
My Blind Brother plays out in roughly the way you’d expect from a rom-com, but is elevated by writer-director Sophie Goodhart’s ability to capture people’s capacity for both kindness and cruelty. She addresses what most people (including myself) would be ashamed to admit: when you suffer, you get to be the hero for a little bit. When you’re a perfect TV victim (say, the blind athlete or the woman mourning her boyfriend) people acknowledge your suffering. In exchange for pain, you get a little pity and support. So, what happens when you know you don’t deserve that support? Do you try confess? Do you give up on your own happiness, and prioritize people you think deserve the support? Do you feel guilty for being so selfish that you want to be a victim?
Goodhart resists the urge to demonize or fully absolve Rose, and even offers Robbie a moment that validates his anger and self-centeredness. The conclusion that people are never fully selfish or selfless might seem obvious, but Brother comes to it in a wonderful way.
Featured image courtesy of SXSW.