On the rare occasions the cinema has engaged with Down’s syndrome – 1996’s The Eighth Day and 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon are the main ones to spring to mind – it’s been in the form of sweetly sentimental road trips. Though Handsome travels far wider, this meandering, naggingly superficial and sometimes outright misjudged documentary hews to a similar path, dispatching Nick Bourne and younger brother Alex, who has Down’s, to swap tales with similar support networks around the globe. Narrator Nick has Louis Theroux’s specs, crossed-arm stance and stop-start syntax down pat. But what he lacks are Theroux’s generally sure journalistic instincts: the sense of where the story lies, the ability to cut to the chase, and the good grace to remove himself from the picture as and when the narrative demands it.
Handsome’s strongest suit is its fond observation of the Bourne brothers’ interactions – larking around Central Park, cleaning up after underwear-soaking accidents – which speaks to a great love and tenderness. On its own, this would be instructive, but elsewhere director Luke White betrays the influence of constructed-reality TV. A scene of Nick and Alex roughhousing looks to have been captured by multiple cameras simultaneously – or replayed several times for one camera – and their progress invokes the dread word “journey”. Their jetting-off also raises questions of privilege that are only patchily answered on screen, and the film becomes excruciatingly naive the further it travels. The brothers poke round Mumbai’s slums and visit palmists in Hanoi, and both the film’s gaze and its editorial take a pronounced turn for the touristic.
A fundamental problem is that wherever the Bournes go, the conversations they initiate aren’t deep enough to generate the lessons for which the film goes hunting. We see lovely scenery in Cornwall, and meet lovely people in Brooklyn, but there’s nothing on this itinerary to make viewers stop and think. Worse: there’s way too much of one brother, and nowhere near enough of the other. Nick seems semi-aware of this failing – “I’m talking about you as if you’re not here,” he apologises to Armand Maillard, a young New Yorker with Down’s – but Alex remains a largely mute, background presence, left looking bored in mid-interview cutaways. In Vietnam, he appears to go into outright foot-dragging revolt, possibly fed up with being hauled round as baggage on a middling gap-year project.