Most romantic comedies center a young woman who is on the precipice of making a transition in both her life and her present relationship, if she has one. The young woman meets a man who challenges her and the way she is currently living her life, someone who forces her to consider what is truly important and put her priorities in order. Pumpkin has all of these elements, except for one critical deviation: The leading man is developmentally disabled.
Carolyn (Christina Ricci), has everything a girl could want: She’s popular, wealthy, and dating an attractive, talented, faithful guy, making her the envy of the other girls on campus. Her boyfriend, Kent (Sam Ball) is the university’s star tennis player and though her seems like the archetypal douchebag, he’s actually a very nice, albeit slightly self-absorbed, guy. After failing to win sorority of the year for several years in a row, Carolyn’s sorority decides that nothing will make them look more selfless and philanthropic in the eyes of the Greek Council than to mentor the athletes in the Challenged Games, a Special Olympics type of decathlon for disabled adults.
Carolyn is instantly uncomfortable with the idea and only becomes more so when she meets her the man she’ll be sponsoring, Jesse “Pumpkin” Romanoff (Hank Harris), who is exhibits mental delay, speech impediment, and is so physically weak that (although not a paraplegic) he cannot walk or run for very long and uses a wheelchair most of the time. Though Pumpkin’s condition is never specifically names, it is clear that he is disabled in a couple of ways, and equally clear that his presence makes Carolyn uncomfortable. After being firmly chastised by both Kent and her sorority sisters, Carolyn attempts to be a better mentor to Pumpkin and soon finds that, despite everything, they get along and like one another very much.
What makes Pumpkin brilliant is that it doesn’t mince words or sugarcoat the way that society feels about disabled people, especially those with mental/learning disabilities. While everyone agreed that Carolyn was being a snob for her initial reaction to punish him, those same people question her when she wants to develop a real friendship with him, and then later feel completely justified in ostracizing her when the two try to embark on a romantic relationship. Though her sorority sisters convince themselves that they were such good people for tokenizing, I mean helping, these disabled adults, their behaviour towards Carolyn and Pumpkin’s relationship makes it clear that they feel that these people are beneath them. The way both Carolyn’s “friends” and Pumpkin’s mother alike treat Pumpkin and the other challenged adults also illustrate how insidiously our society is in its infantilization and asexualization of disabled adults.
Witty, acerbic, sharp, and a refreshingly honest look at wealthy, able-bodied, cishet, White privilege, Pumpkin is also charming, tender, and truly unique. Carolyn is not presented as a perfect person, a juxtaposition to her sorority sisters; far from it. She espouses many of the same prejudices that they do but, in the name of love, she is forced to unpack her privilege so that she can embrace the one she loves fully, or not at all. I give this one 4.75 stars.