About midway through “The Fundamentals of Caring” we see a young man’s face in a car’s side-view mirror. He’s mesmerized by a passenger, her arm dangling outside her window, snaking up and down through the air currents as they all travel down the highway.
It’s a simple moment. But the scene is shot with such emotion and longing that it’s given an all-new poignancy.
That’s the essence of this film: At the core, this is just another road trip movie, but it bends expectations enough to be cleverly pleasing.
KC’s Paul Rudd plays Ben, a writer in Seattle who takes a job as a caregiver for foul-mouthed teen Trevor (an excellent Craig Roberts), who is paralyzed by Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
“Statistically, Trevor probably has about seven to 10 years,” his mother, Elsa (Jennifer Ehle), explains to Ben on his first day. “So let’s try to do everything right, OK?”
Which means Trev is stuck with a strict schedule of meds, naps, treatments and dietary restrictions. Monotonous, yes, but it suits Ben as he’s struggling to recover from the death of his marriage and the loss of his family.
In time, boredom spurs the two to concoct a journey to visit some of this country’s outré roadside attractions — large cattle, big holes in the ground and the like.
“The Fundamentals of Caring” debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is showing exclusively on Netflix beginning June 24. It’s based on Jonathan Evison’s novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” and that slight change in the title’s wording — from “caregiving” to “caring” — tells you all you need to know about its aim. To paraphrase writer Anton Chekhov, when an immensely pregnant woman is introduced in the second act, she will very likely give an emotional surprise roadside birth by the story’s denouement.
But up to that obvious point, “Caring” is fabulous.
The film was written for the screen and directed by former “Late Show With David Letterman” executive producer Rob Burnett, who also created NBC’s 2000-04 bowling-alley-lawyer series, “Ed.”
The film shares that show’s heart and its unwavering examination of disability. Uncomfortable intimacies are on full display, as Ben’s job is to clean up after the paraplegic Trevor in any and all ways.
Nonetheless, Ben and Trevor’s relationship grows and evolves naturally, much like the characters’ backstories. The script contains no farcical lies or faux mysteries meant to obscure plot points until the writer is ready to reveal them out of convenience. A death in Ben’s family, for example, isn’t hidden as some kind of character secret. It’s mentioned early on and the details unfold gradually, as Ben becomes more comfortable with his newfound acquaintances.
You know, like in reality.
Like the aforementioned wind-surfing scene, every shot is framed and colored expertly. The blue and gray days Ben and Trevor spend in the house are just as intriguing as the alpine vistas of the Rocky Mountains they eventually travel.
Rudd and Roberts share an easy rapport, trading not only insults but also tender moments. Trevor’s defense mechanism is to shock his caregivers, whether feigning death or describing vulgar sex acts with pop stars. The gamesmanship between the two characters is reminiscent of Rudd and Seth Rogen’s video game smack talk in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” only more profane and less offensive.
The film also features a nice performance by Selena Gomez, who plays the runaway Dot. On the surface, she’s another hard-living loner prone to dropping F-bombs to shock the grown-ups around her, but as her relationship develops with Trevor — they bond by making fun of Old Man Ben — she softens and matures.
Those of us here in Kansas City will care about this film mostly because of Rudd, and “Caring” is his most heartfelt movie since the criminally underappreciated “Role Models.” He’s solid and charming, as usual, and continues to display an uncanny knack for picking material that suits him. But the film is more than appealing enough to attract viewers who don’t live in the hometown of the film’s star.
“The Fundamentals of Caring” shares DNA with Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words” and Hugh Grant’s “About a Boy.” And even though the film’s journey ends a little too predictably, the trip is worth taking.
David Frese, 816-234-4463. Twitter: @DavidFrese
‘Fundamentals of Caring’
Starts June 24 on Netflix
Not rated. Time: 1:33.