Rachel Handler (she/her), a 2020 RespectAbility Entertainment Lab Alumna, wrote, starred, and produced “Unlucky in Love” for this year’s Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. During the film Challenge, filmmakers have five days to write and produce a three to five minute short based on a centralizing theme. This year’s focus was romance. Rachel Handler’s “Unlucky in Love” is a prime example of the nuance and humor that can come out of this genre.
Rachel Handler went to the Westminster Choir College for musical theatre, and two years after she graduated, she became an amputee. At her first audition back, “the director said, ‘you have a beautiful voice, but…it’s a dance callback” and laughed her out of the room. After that Handler stopped doing musical theater and started working in film and television. However, when she heard that this year’s theme was romance, she decided to go back to her roots, saying “I knew I wanted to pull off a musical! To me, love is musical!”
This short follows flash mob planner Lisa Edmonds (Rachel Handler) as she meets and falls in love with Wendy Lindell (Lachi) over the course of three years with its ups and downs before they get engaged at a flash mob. Yes, all of this happens in and out of song and in five minutes.
Handler’s love interest, Lachi (she/her), an award-winning singer and member of RespectAbility’s Entertainment Consulting Team, does a fantastic job in this film. While she was born legally blind, in this short, her character Wendy develops Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) a few years into the relationship, but does not share it with Lisa. Handler said she wanted to include this as part of the story because “I have been dealing with undiagnosed pain, so that has been on my mind. I wanted to write a story where a physical change in one partner was tearing the couple apart, and watch them mend and come back together.” This aspect of the story gives the opportunity to show the importance of cross-disability relationships and connection, while simultaneously showing that those differences in disabilities when not discussed can create friction. It is refreshing to see these types of nuanced disability conversations on film and especially in a romantic relationship.
The other aspect of this film is a satirical jab at local news’ stories falling into the inspiration porn trope. The short opens with Lisa on the phone with a friend while watching a local news story about her love life. Lisa comments on how she hopes the reporter won’t bring up the loss of her leg and right at that moment, the reporter starts telling the story. The short ends similarly, but now the local news story is about Lisa and Wendy as a couple and of course their disabilities. These bookends make fun of the all-too-common local news story about the inspirational disabled person. It is particularly funny because while it is not immediately obvious, the news reporter is played by Imani Barbarin (she/her), a disability advocate with cerebral palsy. Handler said, “I wrote the news reporter role thinking it would be so funny to have a disabled actor play it! Oh the hypocrisy! I think if we’d had someone without a disability in that role it just would have been super cringey, and something we’ve all seen before.”
This film is both funny and lighthearted as many musicals are while also tackling difficult conversations. That dichotomy is often hard to achieve and makes this short an enjoyable watch! When discussing audience takeaways, Handler said “I hope this helps our audiences realize that anyone can become disabled at anytime, but that isn’t something to fear or find tragic, it’s a part of life. Disclosing a disability can be as vulnerable as becoming disabled, but life with a disability can still be beautiful, sometimes even more so.” This film definitely achieved her goals and did so in an original way.