Documentaries are often extremely personal, passion projects for the directors behind them. Even when the film has a political or social bent, the filmmaker often gets so close to his or her subjects that a level of intimacy is palpable. This personal connection is all the more powerful for director Charlotte Glynn, who returns home to introduce the world to her sister with her documentary debut, Rachel Is. Meeting Rachel will be the first experience of its kind for many of us, as Glynn’s younger sister represents members of our society whom many of us have simply chosen to ignore. She’s bold, she’s headstrong, and as a person living with developmental disabilities, her road to adulthood is different from what audiences usually see on screen. With Rachel Is, Glynn challenges certain pre-conceived notions (including her own), and makes the truly personal, public. Although the film is a bit unpolished—playing more like a collection of home videos than a documentary at times—the footage used tells a whole story, and the work is compelling.
The story begins with footage of the Glynn sisters visiting their father’s grave, along with their mother. As the director breaks down and takes a moment to grieve her loss, Rachel matter-of-factly states that she does not miss their father. Then, in almost the same breath, she expresses real concern for her sister and attempts to comfort her. This scene is the perfect set-up for the rest of the film and for understanding Rachel. Because of her disability, she exists and communicates completely without a filter. Her words can be either loving, or utterly crushing, but her family is supposed to be understanding either way. This can be difficult—impossible, even. Much of the film centers on the toll Rachel’s more recent longings for independence (and the outbursts that come with them) are beginning to take on her mother. As they search for an appropriate living situation for Rachel, they experience those universal growing pains. The audience witnesses a very typical mother and adolescent daughter struggle, as the two push and pull against an inevitable break.
Where Rachel Is most surprises is in its brutal honesty. Glynn admits to having difficulty seeing her sister as human, thereby forcing her audience to make similar admissions. Rachel has a trial run living with another family—an option she and her mother must explore, as there is little funding and few options for group homes. Some of these scenes are especially difficult to watch as it becomes clear that Rachel really does not get the care she needs and deserves outside of her home. Another universal fear is exposed—that fear of a loved one being mistreated, or simply ignored, in the presence of others.
Glynn’s documentary is an important and unique coming-of-age story, and sharing this production undoubtedly required great bravery on the part of the filmmaker and her family. Rachel Is ultimately triumphs, and by the conclusion we feel connected to all of the Glynn women—especially Rachel, whose openness, love, fear and fearlessness make her an incredible, whole, human being. The fact that we can empathize with Rachel (as well as with her mother and sister) proves that Rachel Is has the ability to impact and impress upon an audience in a unique and meaningful way.
Director: Charlotte Glynn
Starring: Rachel Glynn, Charlotte Glynn
Release Date: May 29, 2014 (VOD)