When "King Gimp" makes its long-awaited broadcast debut tonight on HBO, don't overlook a quiet hero of the story.
As this Oscar-winning documentary makes clear, Dan Keplinger's mother, Linda Ritter, played a key role in her son's success. It was Ritter who resisted Dan's father's attempts to have him institutionalized when their son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It was Ritter who struggled to ensure that Dan enjoyed the same experiences as other children, who fought to have him attend regular classes, and who stressed to him the importance of being able to care for himself.
"I treated him the same as I would have treated any normal baby," Ritter says early in the film, which was made by Baltimore filmmakers Susan Hannah Hadary and William Whiteford. And "King Gimp" documents the glorious results of her refusal to believe that Dan was afflicted with anything that couldn't be overcome.
Not that there wasn't plenty of struggle involved; an early scene in the film shows how difficult it can be for Keplinger to do something as seemingly simple as power his motorized wheelchair through an automatic door. Also featured is film of him dressing himself, fixing and eating microwave popcorn, and climbing stairs -- seemingly simple tasks, but ones that require considerable effort for him.
Hadary and Whiteford made a lot of good decisions that benefit their film, none more so than having Keplinger himself write the screenplay and occasionally serve as on-screen narrator. Although the involuntary muscle spasms caused by CP make him difficult to understand, subtitles are there for those not attuned to his speech patterns.
And when he's not on-screen, his words appear as text superimposed on the film, one letter at a time, fashioned as Keplinger painstakingly taps keys using a stick attached to a specially fitted headset. Allowing viewers to experience Keplinger's speech and typing abilities increases our understanding of his world, and our appreciation of his ability to thrive in it.
"King Gimp" also allows us to watch Keplinger's development as an artist. We see the early classes at Parkville High School, where he discovered that art allowed him to express himself "without anybody interpreting for me." And we follow as Keplinger navigates his way through Towson University, overcoming indifferent teachers, including some unnamed faculty members who refused to even talk to him. We see him grapple with unforeseen challenges -- how can someone with so little control over his muscles meet the art degree's sculpture requirement?
The paintings themselves are extraordinarily powerful, darkly expressionistic self-portraits filled with both frustration at having so much still to say, and joy at having finally found a way to say it.
Although "King Gimp" remains upbeat overall, the film doesn't stint Keplinger's struggles. For instance, there's a melancholy segment in which he acknowledges that he'll probably never enjoy a prolonged sexual relationship with a woman. Still, there's remarkably little self-pity.
Hadary and Whiteford filmed Keplinger's life over 13 years, beginning when he was 12. Early scenes show Dan as a student at the Ridge School, being carried from his chair and quietly being prepared for the life of dependency the "experts" were certain was his destiny.
By the end of the film, he's graduating from Towson with an art degree. And the embrace between Keplinger and his mother during the commencement ceremony could well be the most joyous moment any of us will see on television this year.
When: 7-7: 45 tonight
In brief: Oscar-winning documentary on Baltimore artist Dan Keplinger