Sex, lies, and disability
Two friends take 29-year-old Enea Gabino on a journey across the Alps to find physical intimacy.

Sex, lies, and disability

Two friends take their developmentally disabled friend on a road trip to find what he’s missing: a woman

BRATTLEBORO — Sex and the developmentally disabled is not a topic for polite company, bringing up (as it does) the nasty bits behind the curtain.

For parents, especially, this topic chills the soul. Who wants to think about their adult child's aching need for physical love - an urge, a natural instinct - knowing that this need might go unsatisfied for a lifetime?

So we - as parents, as friends, as society - lie. We tell ourselves we're keeping the developmentally disabled young person “safe.” We insulate, protect, and assure him that “someday” he can have what he wants - all the while knowing that the chances are slim to none that this will ever happen.

Director Carlo Zarotti decides to do something about this injustice and chronicles his efforts to ensure that his developmentally disabled friend, 29-year-old Enea Gabino, has his chance at the intimate relationship brass ring.

The result is the docudrama The Special Need, which tells the tale of a rescue mission that blows off course as Zarotti and friend Alex attempt to get Enea what he craves: “a beautiful, young, hot, sweet, and sensitive girl.”

A tall order for any man who is not George Clooney - and Enea is no George Clooney.

* * *

The balding, bespectacled, and slightly stooped Enea has a good life despite his obvious cognitive challenges. He has a job - something that almost 90 percent of U.S. adults with developmental disabilities lack.

Enea lives with his older parents in a small Italian village, where most people know him; the residents are kind and patient with him. He is the town's cheerful oddball, pedaling his bicycle to work and exchanging shouted greetings with passersby.

But he is 29, and all around him, his friends are pairing off. And it is a warm spring - coats and long sleeves have been exchanged for cutoffs and bikinis. Enea's desire to “have” a woman spills over into every aspect of his life, and it is an ongoing conversation of Escher-like construct with no resolution.

Plus, some people just aren't helpful. Enea's therapist, a staid older woman, sees it as her duty to wean him from his restricted interests (beautiful girls) with questions such as: “What are you missing, Enea, that makes you feel these needs?”

“Love,” he responds. “I am missing love.”


Enea's attempts to make love happen are toe-curlingly comical or excruciatingly painful as one beautiful girl after another rejects his robotic advances.

“Couldn't we find someone who would give a shit about him?” asks Alex after watching one of these exchanges that ends badly: with sunbathing beauties calling over a lifeguard to get rid of Enea, who won't stop hovering.

This is the lightbulb moment for Zarotti, who puts himself in the driver's seat of what evolves into a road trip with a specific goal: to “solve” the problem of Enea's deprivation, as if it is an itch to be scratched.

* * *

With well-meaning intentions, and armed with a half-baked plan that involves the exchange of money for sex somewhere along the way, Zarotti and Alex take Enea - with Enea's parents' blessing - on an adventure across the Alps into unknown territory, where they learn more about themselves than they anticipated.

It's not that Zarotti and Alex mean to be heroes, or even enablers; they are truly concerned that Enea will never experience physical love with a woman. But the lenses through which they see world are the lenses of privilege: of knowing one's limitations, knowing one's strengths; of knowing how to go after what you want and knowing how to get it.

About halfway through this journey, the layers start to come off of their misperceptions: about love, women, disability, and sexuality. And they continue to peel away until what is left is a humbling glimpse of humanity in its most raw, unadorned self in a place where we are most naked to ourselves and to others, a place where “generosity” takes on a new meaning and all that was well-meaning before now seems so inadequate, if not toxic.

Told in a documentary-like style, but clearly scripted, The Special Need has many elements of a buddy movie: three guys in a Volkswagen van, a journey to a brothel, and a destination that's somewhere different from where you thought you were headed.

In the end, the story leads its characters back to where they started, but when they get there, the curtain is pulled back, and the truth - as individual, ineffable, and personal as it is - is revealed.

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