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“Its heroine will be a real inspiration for other people with Down syndrome, but what’s really important is that she’s somebody whom anyone can relate to, and she’s fun to be around.”

We live in a culture heavily influenced by cinema, which makes a big contribution to our perceptions of what is and isn’t normal, as well as our notions of how we ought to treat one another. That’s difficult for those who hardly ever see people like themselves onscreen – or, if they do, see them only in documentaries or worthy films whose primary purpose is to educate. In this context, Linda Niccol’s Poppy is a breath of fresh air. Its heroine will be a real inspiration for other people with Down syndrome, but what’s really important is that she’s somebody whom anyone can relate to, and she’s fun to be around.

That doesn’t mean that life is easy. When we meet Poppy (Libby Hunsdale), her parents have been dead for some years. She lives with her brother Dave (Ari Boyland), who is racked with guilt because he was driving the car when the accident happened, and who deals with it by drinking, trying to keep the family’s car mechanic business going (despite beiing patently out of his depth), and being massively overprotective of his siister. She may have a disability, but she’s 19 and ready to live life on her own terms. What’s more, though he thinks of hiimself as her carer, she spends a lot of time looking after him.

They live in a small New Zealand town where everybody knows Poppy and most people are kind and encouraging towards her, though she still has to deal with some prejudice. “Is that legal?” asks a bystander when she goes to apply for her provisional driving licence. She doesn’t let it get to her. Always one step ahead of the game, she’s busy sizing up the clerk as possible girlfriend material for her brother.

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Poppy’s ambitions all centre around cars, of which she has a prodigious knowledge. Meeting a guy whom she used to be at school with – Seb Hunter’s Luke – when he has totalled his car, she offers to fix it in exchange for driving lessons. As these take place, a tentative relationship blossoms between the two – something which is guaranteed to make Dave panic and to be condemned by some of their peers, who see her as little more than a child. Meanwhile, she petitions Dave to give her a proper apprenticeship, or at least pay her more than pocket money given that she’s doing as much work as he is. Everything seems to be an uphill struggle, and yet her determination and spirit make her seem unstoppable.

Aspects of the film may be formulaic, even cliché, but perhaps it’s time that Down syndrome teens got their turn with some of that. The well drawn characters and lively performances mean that it’s still fun to watch, and the multiple interconnected plot strands make it feel more real. Poppy’s natural tendency to let her speech wander, including unnecessary details, allows for exposition which doesn’t seem out of place, and once one gets used to her way of talking, it’s easy enough to go along with. The film is not unrealistic, acknowledging that she has vulnerabilities and needs help with some things, but it presents her as an independent person with her own very clear desires and priorities, and Hunsdale manages to make her equal parts forceful and sweet.

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Much more engaging than its premise might suggest, this small time story has a big heart. If you’re looking for a film which will leave you smiling for the rest of the day, don’t miss this one.

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Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2022

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