'Graduation' a triumph

June 09, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"I'm just like everyone else, I just walk differently."

Those are the first words from Sarah Gehring in the film "Sarah's Graduation," which airs at 7:30 tonight on Maryland Public Television. The words sound simple and matter-of-fact, but by the time Sarah walks across the stage at Towson Senior High School to receive her diploma at the film's end, you'll realize how special they are.

"Sarah's Graduation," a quiet little film (28 minutes long), is about life at Towson for Gehring, a young woman with cerebral palsy. The film was created by the Emmy Award-winning local filmmaking team of Susan Hadary Cohen and William A. Whiteford.

The film's triumph is in the wonderful job it does capturing Sarah as she rushes full speed through the crush of ordinary and universal moments of high school; the word "handicapped" seems like something from another planet.

There's Sarah, the honors student, learning about Newton's Law. There's Sarah in social studies class certain, then not so certain, then kind of certain, that troops sent to battle in places like Iraq should be supported by the folks back home no matter what. And there's Sarah writing notes to her friend in English class as the teacher talks about Tennessee Williams.

There's Sarah at the computer working on the senior class year book, walking off the soccer field as student manager, and getting dressed up on prom night.

By the time we get to prom night, the filmmakers -- and Sarah -- have us totally under their spell. The sequence on the Gehrings' front lawn is a roller coaster of sweet memories and emotions; girls fumbling with corsages, boys talking boastfully about the night ahead, Sarah doing one last practice waltz-step with a girlfriend.

The scene features Sarah and her friends posing for the inevitable Kodak snapshot by Mom and Dad. The filmmakers celebrate the moment by photographing the prom-goers from the same angles as the parents, instead of only showing us the parents photographing the teens.

This results in viewers seeing the prom-goers through the parents' eyes, instead of with the distance of an outsider. It's at that moment that my heart went out to Sarah. I stopped seeing her as someone with a handicap and viewed the scene with the kind of joy her parents must have felt seeing Sarah participating so fully in life.

The last words we hear from Sarah on graduation day are, "I hope no matter what, I hope I will always be happy in life."

"Sarah's Graduation" is ultimately about happiness and the affirmation of life. It's an extraordinary film about how special the ordinary can be. It will remind you how good TV can be when the people making it care.

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