Quid Pro Quo

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Opens: Friday, June 13 (Magnolia Pictures).

Writer-director Carlos Brooks delves into a netherworld of fetishisms and handicap worship in his daring first feature, "Quid Pro Quo." The trouble is the movie isn't daring enough. Brooks tiptoes into territory Luis Bunuel would have frolicked in, but he does so without the master surrealist's desire to outrage and confound his viewers.

The question the movie poses is this: Why would an able-bodied person want to be handicapped? What compels a person to wish to be disabled? And damn if Brooks doesn't come up with an answer, or at least an answer insofar as his heroine is concerned. But wouldn't the mystery of this compulsion -- this eroticized worship of wheelchairs, braces, canes and a pair of "magic shoes" -- make a much more fascinating and daring movie than this ultimately conventional tale that demystifies the heroine's fixation?

The story is told by Isaac Knott, a New York Public Radio reporter. Played by Nick Stahl, Isaac is a kind of Ira Glass raconteur. He has been in a wheelchair since age 8, when his parents died in the car crash that crippled him. But the story is really about the mysterious Fiona, who approaches the reporter indirectly to do a story about people who want to paralyze or damage their bodies. She herself is a "wannabe," who insists she is a paralyzed person trapped inside an abled person's body.

Fiona is played by Vera Farmiga, who is quite simply one of the most fascinating, charismatic actresses working in American cinema today. You can't take your eyes off her. Her Fiona is strong and weak, erotic and enigmatic, provocative and pathetic. She can make the most baffling pronouncements sound completely reasonable -- until you realize what she has just said. She needs to be "special," and her fetishistic worship of wheelchairs and braces has a quality of transcendental spirituality.

Then Brooks spoils all this mysterious perversity by allowing a twist ending to explain away Fiona's erotic compulsions. Throw in a bad mother, and you have an ending that is more Freudian than Bunuelian.

The film is beautifully shot in earthen, rustic tones, and the compositions serve to eroticize the two main characters in uncanny ways. This is a startling and promising debut film by Brooks. You just wish he would trust his bent for the surreal more than he does.

Production: HDNet Films. Cast: Nick Stahl Vera Farmiga, Aimee Mullins. Screenwriter-Director: Carlos Brooks. Producers: Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford. Executive Producers: Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban. Rated R, 82 minutes.
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