Funny, charming, and a clear step forward for disability representation on the small screen.
This review of The Healing Powers of Dude (Netflix) is spoiler-free.
Middle school, if film and television has anything to say about it, is the scariest place on Earth — and that’s if you don’t have a social anxiety order like Noah Ferris (Jace Chapman), the ostensible hero of Netflix’s charming new eight-episode comedy series The Healing Powers of Dude. But the title gives away that Noah perhaps isn’t the hero of his own story; that honor goes to Dude (voiced by Steve Zahn), his emotional support dog, and on some level his new friend Amara (Sophie Kim), who is in a wheelchair.
Dude is provided for Noah by his well-meaning parents — a shout out, also, to his hilariously precocious younger sister Embry (Laurel Emory) — to help him transition from home school to a nightmarish middle school, where his anxiety is magnified tenfold and emphasized for the audience through surreal visual gags, such as Noah’s head expanding to cartoon proportions after Embry’s insistence that nobody will find its shape weird, and him imagining his peers as hordes of the shambling undead when Dude draws a crowd of admirers. It’s a smart, family-friendly way of putting across Noah’s discomfort and stress without burdening the episodes with heavy melodrama.
But it’s Sophie Kim who stands out as the tough and acerbic Amara, in large part because she’s a rare example of a disabled actress playing a disabled role. She has Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy and has been in a wheelchair for most of her life; The Healing Powers of Dude is her first credit, and one must imagine it won’t be the last. In a telling scene early in the first episode, Noah’s anxiety forces him to flee from an interaction with her, and she naturally assumes it’s because of her disability and not his own condition. That is, in large part, the point of this winning comedy series, which sets out to prove that not all debilitating problems are physical, that not all physical problems are truly debilitating, and that the only way to judge people is on the decisions they make, not the things they can’t help. On that level, it succeeds.