Physical trauma and mental illness are often easy crutches in storytelling. They create built-in narrative obstacles and character flaws, but they also tend to replace real dramatic tension and stakes in the larger story. The trauma becomes the story rather than influencing it. It turns real characters into objects of ridicule or plot devices. While these roles aren’t always mean-spirited or necessarily meant to condescend, it’s clear by now that the best way we can support those afflicted is by depicting them as functional human beings with real goals and stories. One film that does it well is Scott Frank’s The Lookout, which not only gives us a capable and intuitive character who has suffered trauma, but asks us to participate in that traumatic experience rather than merely sympathize with it.
The Lookout rests on smart performances from a strong young cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris almost defensively, as a person who wants the best from the world but expects the worst. Years of sympathetic smiles and well-intentioned charity have left him incredibly sheepish and insecure, but there’s also an ambition and optimism to his personality that prevents him from sinking into Mopey Emo Protagonist Guy. Isla Fisher and Matthew Goode are villains by necessity; they’re more lost souls than evil geniuses. Fisher does her usual sexy vamp thing with a layer of sadness that suggests she’s been in the wrong place at the wrong time her entire life. She wishes she could mean what she’s saying, but circumstances just won’t allow it. Goode is charming and dangerous without being overwrought. He’s almost a poser, like he’s imitating his evil older brother. And then there’s Jeff Daniels, who steals nearly every scene he’s in. His Lewis is a lovable cad with a masterful connection to Chris’ demons. A lifetime of blindness has given him exactly the right tools to help his young friend let go of his old routines and start building new ones. It’s a really special performance that Daniels pulls off in spades.
That isn’t to say there aren’t ethical choices being made. The people in The Lookout are often characterized by their approach to Chris’ handicaps: Friendly characters such as Chris’ sister Alison (Janaya Stephens) and his nighttime guardian Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio) offer support without treating Chris like a child. Authority figures like his father and the bank manager Mr. Tuttle (David Huband) never miss an opportunity to remind him that he’s weak and incapable. Chris deals with both extremes in predicable ways, but what make Luvlee and Gary so seductive is the way they remind him that he was once young, free, and powerful. Gary convinces him that he’s better than this crapsack life he’s living, and Luvlee’s sexuality makes him feel that manly sense of Manliness that men like to feel sometimes. Chris finally agrees to help with the bank robbery not because he’s deteriorated into a sociopath, but because these relationships are giving him that sense of efficacy he’d lost for so long. It may be a crime, but it’s something only he can do. These are people who need him. You’d do it, too.