Intelligent Lives

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Intelligent Lives Movie Poster Image
Gentle docu about people with disabilities tackling life.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 70 minutes

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We think this movie stands out for:

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Kids will learn about how people who have developmental and intellectual disabilities navigate life -- and what they need to thrive.

Positive Messages

Focuses on the potential for people who have intellectual disabilities to live fulfilling, productive lives.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The three subjects all persevere and try very hard to overcome significant obstacles. Each has outstanding support from family members, professionals, and others.

Violence & Scariness
Sexy Stuff

One of the subjects, a 30-year-old man who has a long list of hopes for his budding romantic relationship, includes (down the line) "kissing" and (far down the line) "having sex."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Intelligent Lives is a gentle documentary about people who have developmental or intellectual disabilities (including autism, Down syndrome, and very low IQ) persevering and making the most of opportunities to live fulfilling lives. They encounter many challenges and difficulties, which might require explaining to younger viewers (which could be a good thing), including some tough issues of self-determination. The film focuses on three main subjects but also boasts the star power of Oscar winner Chris Cooper, who shares his own son's story.

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What's the story?

INTELLIGENT LIVES follows three people with developmental or intellectual disabilities (including autism, Down syndrome, and very low IQ) who are trying to make the most of opportunities to live fulfilling, productive lives -- chances that, the film argues, everyone in their shoes should have. Naieer, who has autism, shows promise as a visual artist. Micah, who has a reported IQ of 40, attends a disability studies program at Syracuse University in the hopes of one day teaching. And Naomie, who has Down syndrome and a disarmingly warm persona, trains to hold down a job. All three are aided by supportive family members, professionals, and others. Oscar winner Chris Cooper also appears, sharing the story of his son, who has cerebral palsy.

Is it any good?

The subjects of this documentary are undeniably inspiring, but the filmmaking is on the scattershot side, limiting the film's power. Intelligent Lives shares some of the positive outcomes that are possible when people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities get the right kind of support and opportunities. Naieer, Micah, and Naomie's stories are juxtaposed with history lessons from our (barbaric) recent past. Not all that long ago, people in their shoes might well have been relegated to institutions that were indistinguishable from prisons. Cooper tells how his own family was advised to put his son, Jesse, in an institution; instead, they fought for his inclusion in standard education programs, and he became a star student and poet.

But Intelligent Lives doesn't make specific recommendations beyond inclusion and awareness. It offers a link at the end of the film for more information, but within the movie itself you'll find few concrete details. Each subject has outstanding support; it's hard not to think that's pretty rare. Are there solutions we can pursue, laws we can urge our representatives to make? Are there success rates for given programs? Dramatically, the film lacks a driving narrative; threads are introduced and dropped. And so the film is ultimately somewhat unsatisfying, despite the subjects' involving stories. You certainly root for them; you just wish there was some beginning, middle, and end to the film that didn't leave you wondering what happened next.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how people who have disabilities are typically portrayed in the media. How does Intelligent Lives compare to other representations you've seen?

  • These three individuals are lucky to have lots of support. Who in the film stood out to you as being particularly generous and/or brave and/or loving with his or her time and energy?

  • How do the film's subjects demonstrate perseverance? Why is that an important character strength?

  • Do you think the documentary is advocating for anything specific? If so, what?

Movie details

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