Given the dearth of actors with disabilities in the entertainment industry, a small collective of filmmakers, Zeno Mountain Farm (ZMF), devotes itself to making a film each year with a cast made predominantly of disabled people from all over the United States. Michael Barnett’s Becoming Bulletproof traces ZMF’s production of their campy western Bulletproof through the eyes of first-time performer A.J. Murray, a pop-culture junkie who, even though debilitated by severe cerebral palsy, dreams of becoming a professional actor. Though the documentary’s ponderous opening nearly posits the crew as unadulterated saviors, Barnett quickly finds composure by justly framing Murray and his fellow disabled actors as the real stars.
While the cast and their various conditions easily invite sympathy, Barnett never strikes a pitying tone because, as seen through simple on-set footage, he shows each actor is more than capable of performing; in the case of the highly intelligent but physically impaired Murray, acting is one of the very few things he actually can do. And the trust that Bulletproof’s filmmakers have in their cast and their talent is humanely and succinctly illustrated in a seemingly offhand moment where, after several takes, the director tells an actor with Down syndrome to do whatever he feels for the next one.
Though Barnett deftly provides personal insights into many of the actors’ lives, in which everyday occurrences are contextualized as alternately humorous and tragic, any background into the film that they’re making is strangely, and glaringly, missing. Beyond the fact that Bulletproof leaps back and forth between the Old West and the present day, Barnett offers little sense of the story, and as such what the actors are preparing for. Even the ostensibly celebratory mood in Bulletproof’s final showdown is barely felt since we’re left in the dark as to what came before it.
But Barnett is mostly concerned with the waves of shared joyfulness triggered by the making of Bulletproof. In fact, as Barnett closes on Bulletproof’s raucous premiere party, the director gracefully implies that it doesn’t matter what the world thinks of this surrogate family of actors and filmmakers, only that they would fall apart if they were to stop making movies.