on June 28, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
   Directing team Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams have taken a big risk on their debut, infusing pathos with parodic humor in a fairytale about illicit love a la “Harold and Maude.” Christina Ricci stars as Carolyn McDuffy, a senior at Southern California State University. Carolyn and her sisters in Alpha Omega Pi are determined to defeat their arch rivals, the Tri-Omegas, as Sorority of the Year. Part of their foolproof plan is their killer charity: training the young male athletes of the “Challenged Games.”

   Accustomed to a lifestyle in which everything is “beautiful and perfect,” Carolyn is initially uncomfortable around and a little frightened by her awkward, imperfect charge, Pumpkin (Hank Harris), a wheelchair-bound discus thrower. Soon she recognizes his inner beauty, however, and attempts to fit him in to her fairytale life. Eventually she realizes, however, that her feelings run deeper than mere compassion.

   Meanwhile, motivated by his new muse, Pumpkin begins working out, gradually getting up out of his chair to throw the discus for real, rather than letting it drop limply from his outstretched hand. His mom (Brenda Blethyn), jealous that her unconditional love couldn't inspire him they way Carolyn has, tries to stifle his burgeoning sexual curiosity and drive a wedge between them.

   The messages here are sincere--that real beauty resides on the inside, that different people are handicapped in different ways, that true love breaks the rules. And the film raises serious, unanswerable questions: When Carolyn sets Pumpkin up on a blind date with a plump pal, is her friend right to be offended, the implication being she could only get a date with the disabled? Or is Carolyn right, as Pumpkin shouldn't be judged on his physical disabilities? When Carolyn pursues a romantic relationship with Pumpkin, has she violated his mother's and the school's trust? Has she taken advantage of a naïve, if consensual, boy? Has she stepped over a line that shouldn't be crossed? Or has she taken a stand, legitimately challenging society's preconceptions about love?

   The difficulty is that in order to root for Carolyn to follow her heart, or to empathize with her difficulty in letting him go, one has to believe in her feelings for Pumpkin. And beyond his soulful gaze, his child-like drawings and his fawning admiration of her relative intelligence (the latter being the clincher for Carolyn), Pumpkin has little to offer Carolyn in the long term.

   But the filmmakers' hearts are in the right place, and, to prevent “Pumpkin” from spiraling into zealous schmaltz, they have juxtaposed their well-meaning storyline with parody. Remarkably, the combination works. Starring Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Brenda Blethyn, Dominique Swain, Marisa Coughlan and Sam Ball. Directed by Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams. Written by Adam Larson Broder. Produced by Karen Barber, Christina Ricci, Andrea Sperling, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. A United Artists release. Comedy. Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 113 min

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