Disability representation is sparse in Hollywood. When we do see it, it’s often lacking. But Aneesh Chaganty aims to upend that with Run, a taut thriller with a wheelchair user heroine. The character is played by the brilliant Kiera Allen (in a killer debut!), who’s actually a wheelchair user. That level of respect for both authenticity and the disabled audience is at the heart of Run, which recently debuted at Nightstream Fest. The film takes the serious subject of abuse at the hands of those who care for us and weaves it into a scary story of survival. In the process, it centers disabled lives in a way that we rarely see.
Chloe (Kiera Allen) is a 17-year-old hoping to leave home for college. Her mom Diane (Sarah Paulson) is an overbearing but loving mother who apparently supports her daughter in every way… apart from the fact that she isn’t allowed a phone or the internet or to leave the house without Diane. There’s also the fact that those college letters don’t seem to be coming, and whenever Chloe does manage to make it to the mailbox her mom always seems to be there.
Although the setup to Run might feel familiar—Chaganty definitely takes a lot of cues from classics like Misery—the execution does not. That’s mostly because as a real wheelchair user, Allen moves naturally through the spectacularly accessible set. Chaganty builds a tense world that feels tangible and real, a space where Chloe can exist freely until her mother decides otherwise. And that’s where the fear really comes in. The horror at the center of Run is all about loss of control and what happens when those we trust betray us in the most terrible way.
Paranoia is a helluva drug. At every moment of the first act, Chaganty uses it to make us and Chloe question what we’re seeing. The conversation around gaslighting and emotional abuse has been in the public consciousness recently, and Run fits right into it. Much of the first two acts take place in one location, using clever editing and claustrophobic framing to build tension. Allen is at the center of all the action, both literal and emotional, with a brilliant performance. She’s a believable teen and a completely relatable hero. Tired, terrified, and disgusted, Chloe is a reluctant action hero who would far rather just be at college. Allen crafts an everywoman you can believe in who goes on a journey that is as horrifying as it is engrossing.
Narratives about disabled people in horror often showcase disability as the horror to be feared, but Run subverts that. Here the only person to be feared is the able bodied woman who raised Chloe. In fact, Chloe’s disability gives her the strength she needs to escape—and not in the corny “inspiration porn” way that we’re used to. Using a wheelchair simply gives her really rad upper body strength. Plus, there’s the fact that she’s a total badass science genius who may or may not have a penchant for invention. Chloe isn’t an able-bodied woman controlled with the threat of disability or injury; she’s a smart wheelchair user who is being abused by the woman society deemed capable of caring for her, something that’s a true threat to many disabled folks.
Paulson proves why she’s become such a horror icon with a shivering performance that shifts from loving to absolutely maniacal in the twitch of an eyelid. Diane is a psycho in the mold of Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, caring to the point of killing. But this is 2020, and Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian are interested in reflecting the real life cases of carer abuse in Run. In that way the film’s representation of Paulson as a straight villain feels quite radical.
It’s rare to see a story about a parent trying to kill their disabled child that is painted as horrific. Those tales are often played as tragic or about mercy. Here Paulson and Chaganty craft a truly evil villain whose own selfishness and desperation overcomes any love she might have had for Chloe. Though it’s an incredibly melodramatic and pulpy version, it contradicts many of the ideas of disability that we get fed: that dying is better than being disabled, that parents who kill or abuse their disabled children were just “trying their best.” There is no question of that here. Paulson is always shot and framed–highlighted by Hillary Spera’s chilling cinematography—as if she were the proverbial ghost haunting the house of Chloe’s childhood and her body.
Run has a big twist that fits into a lot of the disabled narratives we currently see in TV and film that relates to Munchausen By Proxy. Stories like Chloe’s have been in the news with the heartbreaking case of Gypsy Blanchard, which inspired the Emmy-winning series The Act. YA adaptation Everything Everything also used the illness for a late-stage twist. Unlike those stories, though, this exploration is led by a disabled actress and more concerned with the terror that is wrought on victims of the abuse that Munchausen By Proxy causes than the people who cause it.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy the decidedly depressing (and slightly Lifetime-ish) reveal will depend on how tired you are of this particular trope. Even though I am generally exhausted by those stories, Chaganty’s take is fresh and thrilling. Allen’s performance, the action set pieces, and the electric editing made this an enjoyable and even slightly radical flick, tinged with a B-movie flavor, that I thoroughly enjoyed. But be wary: the film does feature a lot of stuff that could be triggering. Not just the obvious abuse–emotional, physical, and medical–but it also touches on suicide. So go in with that in mind.
Run doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it doesn’t have to. Allen makes a big impact in her first role and Chaganty once again proves to have a touch for making unexpected, groundbreaking, and entertaining thrillers. Also, on a personal level it was especially refreshing to see a focus and understanding of the idea of ambulatory wheelchair users, something that most of society—and all of the film industry—ignores. That was surely something that Allen herself brought to the role along with the kind of chops that should see her become a genre staple. The creepy horror-thriller hits Hulu in November, and if there’s any justice in the world you should be hearing a lot more about Allen and her killer debut between now and then.
Featured Image: Hulu