Dir. Nicole Conn’s Semi-Autobiographical New Film Gives Representation To Families With Special Needs Kids

(L-R) Zoë Ventoura as McKenzie De Ridder, Cale Ferrin as Freddie, and Kayla Radomski as Samantha. Still image from ‘More Beautiful for Having Been Broken’

According to a recent Ruderman Family Foundation study called “Disability Inclusion in Movies and Television,” viewers are getting tired of the lack of representation for the disability community on screen. While there have been some memorable and lauded performances by well-known actors portraying those with disabilities, we are at a moment in history when authenticity is key.

Since 2015, Stacey Smith, who heads up the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative which releases various reports on diversity in Hollywood, conducted the initiative’s first study on how people with disabilities are represented and found that just 2.4 percent of characters in the top 100 movies who spoke or had actual names had disabilities. And as Alyssa Rosenberg from the Washington Post writes, “That’s a significant gap between fiction and reality, since the Census Bureau has found in 2010 that 56.7 million people, or 18.7 percent of Americans, have disabilities.”

So how do we fix this huge gap? One solution is for filmmakers to make conscious decisions when it comes to writing, casting and topics they want to tackle. For award-winning writer/director Nicole Conn, it meant making her 7th feature film based on a personal story that gives visibility to families with special needs children. The film ‘More Beautiful for Having Been Broken’ premiered at the La Femme International Film Festival on Oct 18th, and pays homage to Nicole’s son Nicholas who has special needs and is medically fragile.

‘More Beautiful for Having Been Broken’ is a story about three broken women whose lives intersect at a lakeside community and who are forever changed through their shared love of a boy with special needs. It stars Australian actress, Zoe Ventoura (Packed to the Rafters), Kayla Radomski of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame, French Stewart (3rd Rock From the Sun), Bruce Davison (Star Trek / X-Men), Brooke Elliott (Drop Dead Diva), Gaby Christian (South of Nowhere), Harley Jane Kozak (Parenthood) and Gabrielle Baba-Conn (Conn’s real life daughter) who is also making her feature debut. Nicole is committed to changing disability representation in films.

In a press statement, the director says, “I believe inclusion means ALL OF US. That’s why it was so imperative to cast an actor with Special Needs. Our kids need to be seen. Heard. Laughed with and learned from and loved.”

Conn’s journey with her son has been the most intensely spiritual and greatest life education she could ever have asked for; and with this film she wants to show the beauty that comes from the broken. It was her producer, Lissa Forehan, who told her about the Japanese term Kintsukuroi which means “more beautiful for having been broken” and inspired the title of the film. Having had a seriously challenging 2015 with her son almost not making it out of the hospital twice and losing her sister completely broke her. And it wasn’t until she began to heal that she saw beauty in the smallest things. ‘More beautiful for having been broken’ is a story about love, acceptance, tolerance, inclusion and always finding the beauty in pain and making gold out of it.

11 year-old Nebraska native and star of the film Cale Ferrin was diagnosed with Fanconi Anemia, a rare genetic disease that can lead to bone marrow failure and cancer and is often marked by congenital defects and short stature. Fanconi anemia is so rare that Cale is the only known child in Nebraska affected with the disease, according to the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund. The organization, which has a national database of those with the disorder, said roughly 400 people in the United States have the disease. Yet the young boy refuses to let 100-plus hospital visits and more than two dozen surgeries get him down. He has continued to pursue his passion for acting.

We had a chance to speak with Nicole about her latest film and what it means to be actively changing the status quo in Hollywood, as well as Cale Ferrin about his acting ambitions and what he hopes audiences will learn from watching this beautiful story unfold on screen.

Director Nicole Conn

Nicole Conn: What are you hoping for audiences to take away from the film as you gear up to screen at the La Femme International Film Festival?

More than anything I want the viewer to SEE our children. Kids with Special Needs (along with those who are medically fragile due to some kind of disorder/disease) are often quietly shushed and made invisible. My son is highly special needs and medically fragile. When we go to doctor’s offices or we’re in an elevator, people will look anywhere but at him, let alone try to make contact with him. I began to see this happen with so many other kids who are otherly-abled and realized people are fearful and it’s just easier for them to dismiss these kids rather than embrace them. Enough. Our kids need to be seen, heard, laughed with and loved. In this film I hope audiences will realize that contrary to their belief that having children with challenges is a “depressing burden,” will see what a positive life altering impact they have on us. Nicholas is still my greatest teacher!

Why did you decide to write such an autobiographical film?

This film has gone through quite an evolution which basically tracks where my own life has gone since late Dec 2014 when my older sister committed suicide. She was my best friend and my only real mirror to my nearly six decades on this earth. 2015 was the single most challenging year I’ve had with her passing and my son, Nicholas ending up twice in the hospital so ill that the palliative team came to us on both visits. I simply couldn’t handle it all – fell into a deep chasm of despair and grief. When I began to recover it was so clear to me that the only thing really and truly important in this world are my children, my family and friends. And the concept of beauty in the most simple of terms – Truly Nicholas has mastered mindfulness like no one else I know!

Still image from ‘More Beautiful for Having Been Broken’

Why do you think there is such a lack of disability representation on film and TV even today?

I kind of feel we are at that precipice where the inclusion of people with Special Needs is sort of where LGBTQ film was when I started way back in the early 1990’s with “Claire of the Moon.” Our lives were so under-represented and that’s what COTM was about. And now I believe film and TV should represent the incredible community of Special Needs. I will say there is also a pragmatic element to why disability has been so marginalized. Many actors with challenges may have ticks (which make it difficult to edit) and sometimes find it difficult to concentrate due to stimulus that is inherent on a set – not to mention the long hours and the demands of shooting on a micro-indie budget. In our industry there is NEVER enough time to shoot your film.  It can be as simple as “that will take too much time.” Since I have a child with special needs none of that phased me at all. I was very determined  to integrate the challenges that faced our heroic Cale Ferrin, into his Freddie character. 

Cale is truly a Godsend. When he read for this role he was only eight years old. I don’t think he really grasped the material at that time, but we all fell in love with him instantly. I think God worked Her magic and we were unable to shoot until Cale was 10 which allowed him to understand the depth of his character.  He’s a natural entertainer, but he’s more than that – he’s an incredibly talented actor. He is unanimously loved by viewers as well as our cast and crew. For me he was perfect to represent my son and himself. He’s the greatest ambassador one could ever hope for to the Special Needs Community. Also his mother, Britteny is a fellow warrior-mom and this film is for her as well as the many other warrior-moms. 

Still image from ‘More Beautiful for Having Been Broken’

Aside from the importance of representation in your characters, your film covers universal topics like love, acceptance, family and belonging. How do you hope audiences will relate to the story on screen?

I hope when they see this family drama that plays out between all the characters that it will be relatable to everyone out there who has experienced family drama (and who of us hasn’t!!). And that the love story that grows between Freddie’s mother, Samantha (Kayla Radomski) and the newcomer to town McKenzie (Zoe Ventoura) will convey what the title means. These two very broken people are brought together through Freddie – which is how they all become more beautiful for having been broken.

Was there any part of making this film that ended up being healing for you personally given what you went through with your own son?

The film basically saved my life! As did my older sister. Not only did the film help me heal my core, it made me crawl out of that cold and lonely chasm to connect with a group of women I’ve known for some time– The Silver Tribe – who came from all over the world to support me on set and in doing so helped to bring me back to the living. The same is true from my son and daughter. While Nicholas may be my greatest teacher, Gabrielle is my most trusted friend and confidante. It is one of my greatest joys that Gabrielle is in the film – having mainlined theatre her entire high-school career, Gabrielle has developed into a quite magical performer. I’m so proud of her and it has been especially meaningful for me to have her on set and share in this entire journey.

Why is inclusion important to you as a filmmaker?

Because I’m determined for people to see AND connect with my son. And Cale Ferrin. And all the other kids who are otherly-abled. So they are no longer invisible – and in doing so realize that these kids are so Special because we need them a heckuva lot more than they need us.

Cale Ferrin

Cale Ferrin: How did you get involved in “Beautiful for Having Been Broken”?

I received the audition notice from my agent. When I went for the audition, I remember talking with everyone in the room. We had an instant connection and it felt like it was just meant to be. 

Not many people would know about Fanconi Anemia. What do you hope this film will raise awareness about?

My hope is that this film will raise awareness about Fanconi Anemia (FA). It is a very rare disorder. We need a cure and the best way to find one is through research. I also hope this film shows others with special needs that they can do something impactful, to change minds in everyday life. To bully someone is not okay. To judge them based on their illness is not okay either. Kindness matters to everyone. Also, to prove that those with special needs deserve to have dreams too, and they too can come true someday.  

What was the most exciting part of being in Nicole’s film?

I think the most exciting part of being in this film was, first, to be able work with Nicole Conn. She’s a legendary Director, and I love that she chose me to represent her son Nicholas in this film. But also, the thought of seeing myself on the big screen is also very exciting. I love that part too!

You’ve been a guest on a number of TV shows with your family talking about your condition. Why is this important to you and your parents? 

It is really important to talk about what Fanconi Anemia is and how anyone can help us with research to find a cure. Research helps to find more about cancers and bone marrow treatments and therapies. This helps not only those with FA, but the general population too. We only have those close to us to help fundraise for more research, so the more we can raise awareness, the more we get to join the effort with us. 

What do you hope audiences will remember most about ‘Beautiful for Having Been Broken’? 

That kindness matters. Everyone has feelings and we all need to be loved, even when we are broken. It’s then that we need it the most. Special needs kids are amazing and have the biggest hearts. I hope this film helps others see this in someone, more so than they have ever done before.

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