“I’m not stupid, I’m just different.”
When I first learned that Riding the Bus with My Sister existed, I was both fascinated and frightened. Rosie O’Donnell playing a mentally challenged person whose main hobbies include riding the city bus and buying toilet seat covers held promise for sheer what-the-fuckness, but I knew that so-bad-it’s-good can end up being so-bad-it’s-really-bad real quick.
My worst fears were confirmed, unfortunately, in the opening credits as the words “Lifetime” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame” scrolled across the screen and were further solidified when Beth, waking from her disabled slumber, smiles into the mirror and in a loud, grating voice shouts, “Good Morning!” From that point forward, the WTF factor of seeing Rosie O’ Donnell play a mentally “retarded” woman with a heart of gold diminished every time she was on the screen.
Now I know it’s not politically correct to use the term “retarded” but it’s inexplicably used throughout Riding the Bus with My Sister, its negativity undermining many of the positive messages the film is trying to convey. One character even asks early on, “They still use that word?” It also doesn’t help that Beth is treated like crap the entire movie. In the first five minutes she is called a “hippo” by a downstairs neighbor, glared at with disgust by her fellow bus riders, and openly insulted for being lazy & living off the government. It would have been just as effective if director Anjelica Huston (Why?) flashed “People hate the handicapped” in bold red letters. For a simple woman who only wants to ride the bus, drink discount brand cola, and one day go to Disney World, she is treated as a drain on society.
The person who treats her the worst is her sister Rachel, a career woman living in New York who must leave behind her fashion photography business to take care of Beth after their father passes away. In a wholly unlikable performance, Andie MacDowell phones it in as the self-absorbed Rachel. MacDowell’s only job in the movie is to look nice & be annoyed by Beth’s antics. Rachel moves in with Beth to help her adapt to life on her own, but soon regrets it as Beth irritates her with conversation-starters like “Hey Rachael, I put seven red fishies inside of this can, do you think they can swim in cola? I sure hope so. I would hate to drown them.” Rachel’s characters arc (and the arc of the entire movie) amounts to the realization, “Hey, I’m kind of a piece of shit because I never really accepted my mentally challenged sister.” We learn this through a tedious parade of at least ten flashbacks of the sisters eating dirt, painting, even suffering seizures; all accompanied by sparse, acoustic guitar. This goes on for two hours.
The most frustrating thing about Riding the Bus With My Sister is that Beth is looked down on by Rachel but she seems to have life more figured out than her developmentally “superior” sister. She has her own place, lots of friends, and a routine she enjoys. She even has a similarly disabled boyfriend, Jessie, who treats her well, takes her out on dates, and has hobbies of his own like karate & riding his bike. Of course, in one of the many ways the movie manipulates viewers’ sentimentality, Jessie is beaten by a group of thugs towards the end of the film.
Kudos should be given to Rosie O’Donnell, though. While her performance mostly consists of rocking back and forth, shouting, and contorting her face, she does succeed in coming across as genuinely handicapped. In one of the film’s best scenes, Beth mourns the loss of her father by sobbing uncontrollably on a bench outside the hospital while eating a doughnut, drinking a cola, and wearing a kitty cat t-shirt. In another she talks about boning Will Smith. There are a few memorable moments like that in Riding the Bus with My Sister but with minimal plot development and a near-absence of likable characters the film falls apart. What could have been a heartfelt drama with camp value fails because the story doesn’t go anywhere. In the end, the viewer is left feeling as confused & unfairly abused as Beth is in the film.