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Director Aneesh Chaganty, co-writer Sev Ohanian, and producer Natalie Qasabian previously brought us the 2018 nail-biter Searching. Now, they have given audiences an exciting new thriller featuring a paraplegic lead. Kicking off the first night of Nightstream, a collaborative virtual film festival from the organizers of Boston Underground, Brooklyn Horror, North Bend, Overlook and Popcorn Frights Festival, Run tells the story of a teenage girl who uses a wheelchair and her overprotective mother.

At first, it seems as though Chloe Sherman (Kiera Allen) and her mother Diane (Sarah Paulson) share the perfect bond. Diane does everything for Chloe. A single mom, Diane cooks for her, cleans up after her, and even homeschools her daughter. In return, Chloe mostly avoids the outside world, sticking mainly to the house and her best bud’s side. Still, as time goes on, Chloe begins to suspect her mother is hiding a dark secret – one that could change the course of both of their lives forever.

This is a sudden acknowledgement of onscreen representation for disabled performers, a tragically marginalized group in both TV shows and feature films. Most importantly, it’s a movie built around a specific kind of disabled actor, one that is strong-willed, resilient and whip-smart. One that’s a fighter.

Typically, in a movie about a disabled person, an able-bodied person is cast as the lead. The Men. The Intouchables. The Upside. Born on the Fourth of July. Wait Until Dark. The Beyond. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Don’t Breathe. One needn’t look very hard to see the widespread stigma in Hollywood against hiring actors with disabilities. By systemically casting able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities, the film industry is hurting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our country.

While I was growing up, my father was always very ill. Juvenile diabetes weakened his immune system before he was even old enough to drink, and life was always an uphill battle. It was hard watching him deal with his illnesses, his transplants, his amputations, his mood swings, his crutches, his pills, his surgeries, his seizures – but we didn’t really talk about it, and nobody really asked. Sometimes strangers stared. For the most part, it was something unfamiliar and uncomfortable for people, so they just overlooked it. Pretended not to notice. Quiet negligence. Averted eyes. Furrowed brows. Tight-lipped teeth. I relate to the characters in Run in fiercely intimate ways that didn’t previously seem possible.

In Run, Chloe is a determined straight-A student who just happens to have been born with a slew of debilitating health conditions. Arrhythmia. Hemochromatosis. Asthma. Diabetes. Paralysis. Chloe’s going to be in college in a few months, but can she truly survive without her mother at her beck and call? 

Chloe is tested mentally and physically for every single pulse-pounding minute of Run. Long before the dark truth about her mother starts to comes to light, a typical day in Chloe’s life is already extremely taxing. Pulling herself into her chair in the morning. Constantly checking her blood sugar levels in order to properly adjust her diet and prevent diabetic seizures. Giving herself insulin shots when her blood sugar gets too low. Tossing her cookies in-between classes when the cocktail of various medicinal chemicals she ingests every few hours upsets her stomach again. Using her inhaler when she wheels down the hall too fast, trying to beat her mom to the mail. Trying to see if that acceptance letter from Washington University finally came, if her wishes finally came true, if she can finally be set free. Chloe wants college so bad she can taste it, and she’s proved herself more than capable of achieving her goals.

At the end of the day, Chloe is just like any other teenage girl, only now, she’s being portrayed by someone who happens to represent a marginalized group that makes up nearly 20% of the population.

It’s been over 70 years since a horror movie was made starring a paraplegic lead. The last attempt at inclusivity was in 1948’s The Sign of the Ram; a thriller directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven) featuring Susan Peters in her first return to acting after a tragic hunting accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Peters plays a vindictive stepmother who uses a wheelchair and manipulates everyone around her into carrying out her every deceitful whim. It’s a charming little gothic sleeper, a real under-seen gem.

Although director Sturges made great strides for representation in the 1940s, sadly, not much has changed in the film industry since then. According to a recent study released by Ruderman White Paper, 95% of characters with disabilities in top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors. The broad study on employment of actors with disabilities in television reveals the “unjust and troubling discrimination of actors with disabilities in Hollywood”, as stated in the white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation. 

In other words, actors with disabilities are the least represented group in all of Hollywood.

Director Chaganty is here to change that statistic. By casting extremely talented newcomer Kiera Allen as the lead character in his sophomore film, Chaganty is bringing representation to the forefront for disabled people with Run in the same way that he previously brought representation to the screen for the Asian community with Searching. The onscreen erasure of wheelchair users still has a long way to go, but with the help of allies like Chaganty and his crew, the industry is finally starting to come around.

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