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The duet of service

by Rachel Petersen

Walking alongside individuals with mental illness is not for the faint of heart. Though worthwhile, the journey can be at times downright painful and dissatisfying. In his most recent film, The Soloist, director Joe Wright portrays the often agonizing struggles faced by those who cast their lots with persons in this particularly marginalized sector of society.

The film depicts the real-life story of an unlikely friendship between Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers, a Julliard-trained musician whose schizophrenia leaves him homeless, playing a two-stringed violin on the streets of L.A. Lopez initially uses Ayers as a subject for his newspaper column, but he eventually develops a genuine desire to help his eccentric friend, as well as the wider homeless population in Los Angeles. Even once the protagonist’s interests turn altruistic, however, his interactions with Ayers remain deeply frustrating; attempts to improve his friend’s well-being prove misguided and at times backfire entirely. Far from bringing Lopez the satisfaction of helping someone less fortunate than himself, this lopsided relationship proves emotionally devastating for both parties.

As the film progresses, Lopez begins to relate to Ayers on more equal footing, a shift brilliantly underscored by parallel scenes in which both men rapidly and repeatedly spell Ayers’ full name to indifferent listeners. Relinquishing his efforts to improve Ayers’ welfare, Lopez resigns himself to “merely” being his friend. In doing so, he learns to value Ayers for who he is, rather than who he has the potential to be. In this way, it is Lopez, not Ayers, who is transformed by the friendship.

Valuing all human life requires that we, like Lopez, set aside the standards by which society evaluates an individual’s worth. More importantly, it requires us to relinquish our illusion of separateness from those we consider “broken.” Only as we overcome these imagined barriers can we truly participate in the kind of loving relationships to which Jesus calls His followers.

The Soloist is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use, and language. Aside from the director’s unfortunate attempts to simulate Ayers’ visual hallucinations, the film offers a compelling exploration of the relationship between mental illness and homelessness.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2009 issue of In Part magazine.
Rachel Petersen

Rachel Petersen lives and works at Paxton Ministries, a home for mentally and emotionally challenged individuals in Harrisburg, Pa. She is a member of the Grantham (Pa.) BIC Church.

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