I was invited to the screening of Pumpkin prior to its release in the summer of 2002. This is a United Artists film with Francis Ford Coppola as the Executive Producer. Co-directed by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder. The screening was in the Los Angeles area for those within the disability community to offer feedback and reaction to this film that centers on the relationship between a mentally challenged wheelchair bound college athlete and a popular sorority sister.
Pumpkin begins with the arrival of Carolyn McDuffy, played by a blonde Christina Ricci, to her sorority house of Alpha Omega Pi at the start of her senior year. Julie, played by Marisa Coughlan, is the head of the sorority with the intent on winning the Sorority of the year, known throughout the movie as SOY. The sorority that beat them out last year consists of tall blonde beauties so she decides to impress the Greek Council by picking as the charity a group of mentally challenged athletes from Riverside that are competing for the Challenged Games, comparable to Special Olympics.
The thought of being paired up with a retarded type person freaks Carolyn out as well as some of the other sorority sisters. It just so happens the guy she is to mentor arrives off the school bus riding in a wheelchair with her photo, seeking her out. Their first few practices on the field are not comfortable for Carolyn, as she cannot understand what Pumpkin, played by Mark Harris, is trying to say. It seems to affect her because she cannot get in bed with her boyfriend, Kent who is the star tennis player for USCS. The pairing of these two did not work well for me, it seemed more comical at times and he came off as pathetic with no redeeming qualities.
The casting for Pumpkin was superb as I immediately took a liking to him having no previous knowledge of this actor until I prepared for this review and read his bio. The roles of the mothers for both Pumpkin and Carolyn were excellent, and they both really had no clue to their children and their personalities. It seemed Carolyn’s mother expected her to be a certain way and not have friends that were the slightest bit different. Pumpkin’s mother seemed to think he could not amount to much besides winning the Challenging Games and seemed surprised that he could stand instead of sitting in his wheelchair.
I have personally never experienced College, having attended one fraternity party in the late 1970s so what is typical for a sorority I am not sure, but the Alpha Omega Pi were shallow with plastic smiles planted on their faces. The thought of mingling with the guys from their selected charities was unheard of and they quickly reprimanded Carolyn for doing so, forbidding all the sisters to stop talking to her. When it looks like they might not win Sorority of the Year they decide to welcome Carolyn back into their sorority in hopes she and Kent will be King and Queen again at the dance and help them win the SOY award. The attitudes conveyed by those sorority girls reminded me a bit of Cruel Intentions, how using those different for ones own benefit.
Carolyn is confused with the feelings she is starting to have for Pumpkin and how she and Kent are going off in different directions. Pumpkin told her she was the smartest person he knew. Carolyn had never heard this before from those that cared for her and it got her thinking about life. She starts to feel pain for the first time in her perfect life and compares it to a shattered mirror. Carolyn admires Pumpkin for being able to handle pain and to feel happy despite his obstacles.
Each time she lies in her bed she pulls out of a drawer a photo of Pumpkin and then adds to the drawer a drawing he did of her looking at the stars and moon. He is starting to affect her in many ways and that becomes clear over the course of time in the movie Pumpkin.
We find Pumpkin in a closet going through a box of things that belonged to his late father when his mother walks in to find him looking at girlie magazines. He explains to her how he is a man, which she has yet to come to terms with and grapples with how she is going to explain things to him. As we see later in the movie when she walks in his room one morning to give him some good news, there is Carolyn naked under the sheets beside him. His mother kicks her out accusing her of rape and notifies the sorority house, school and her parents.
It is an odd scene when she pulls into the driveway at home and all the neighbors are outside watching her Mother comfort her as she gets out of the car. I picked up a vibe that the housekeeper was more accepting of the man Pumpkin was becoming, while his mother seemed to watch every move he made.
Pumpkin explores a girl who thought she had the perfect life until she met an extraordinary guy that showed her what happiness was from the inside. She had to leave town for Long Beach first before she realized she could accept him into her life. There are some interesting moments with Carolyn and other students that happen to be the other sorority members and ones from hers in a class that is about poetry. She also sees a counselor to discuss how she can stop falling in love with someone she does not want to have a sexual relationship with.
Her boyfriend Kent seems a bit too dependent on her, blames losing a crucial match on the fact that she left the stands when he was in the middle of a swing. This lost his concentration and when he arrives at the locker room there she is waiting to have a conversation with him about the changes she is going through.
One thing that I found lacking was no mention of employment opportunities for these college seniors and where they were headed once they graduated. It seemed to focus more on beating the other sorority and winning the Challenged Games. The music fit along with the darkness at times of the movie, perhaps getting a bit louder than I had expected. This runs almost two hours and at one point you might think the movie is over but things turn for the worse for Kent, who seems to be jealous of Pumpkin and unable to let go of Carolyn.
Pumpkin is a movie worth viewing due to being unlike any I have ever seen or heard of. It will teach many to explore how they perceive others and react to those who are different around them. This will help those who have disabilities in encouraging them to go for their dreams and shoot for the impossible.
Additional notes for viewers:
Dr. Jan Blacher, Professor in the School of Education at University of California, Riverside worked as the Research Consultant for the movie and wrote a story in the May, 2002 issue of Exceptional Parent magazine.
Pumpkin was featured at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival where Dr. Blacher participated in the press conferences and screenings as well as the screening I attended in West Hollywood.
Dr. Blacher mentioned that the mother to Pumpkin was a composite of several mothers she has met over the past twenty years. She has also received several emails thanking her for her work on this film and for showing that those with disabilities are just as capable of having a sexual relationship.
The writer of this movie happened to attend University of California, Berkeley as a next-door neighbor to a sorority house that happened to have a charity devoted to the disabled.
Mark Harris has also played Isaac in the movie Mercury Rising, which centered on an autistic boy breaking a secret sensitive code the government was using. Christina Ricci played Wednesday in Addams Family Values.
Pumpkin is the nickname and not the given name for the character. One time Carolyn referred to him by Jesse, although it was not known how she learned this. He seemed a bit old to be referred to as Pumpkin and one time Carolyn asked if he minded and he said no. Funny I have always called my kids Pumpkin as well.
Presiding over this screening were Tony Abrams, co-director and Dr. Blacher that discussed details before and after the viewing with the audience.
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