An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, this gentle and touching piece depicts the extraordinary lifestyle of a California couple whose household includes a mixture of healthy biological children and physically challenged adopted children, with many of the adoptees hailing from other countries, notably Vietnam. Structured around the arrival of the family’s 19th child, a blind boy named J.R. who is paralyzed below the waist, the documentary illustrates the everyday hardships the adopted kids face, while also identifying aspects of the DeBolts’ parenting technique that make their unique situation not only functional but also harmonic. As matriarch Dorothy DeBolt remarks at one point, the fact that some of her kids have to worry about things like climbing stairs without functional legs keeps the normal irritants of life in perspective. Throughout Who Are the DeBolts?, Dorothy and her husband, Bob, are shown creating a nurturing household in which simple victories are celebrated—and in which self-pity is not tolerated.
The filmmakers put special focus on adopted daughter Karen, a happy grade-schooler who giggles constantly, despite having been born without arms or legs. Arguably the most powerful scene in the movie is a simple vignette of Karen preparing for her day without assistance, first using leverage and her teeth to slip on the apparatus containing her prosthetic arms and hooks, and then using the hooks to strap on the elaborate prosthetic comprising most of her lower half. In the DeBolts’ world, teaching a child like Karen to become proud and self-sufficient is the goal—which means that, as the filmmakers state explicitly in narration, the example of the DeBolts provides lessons about dignity and understanding from which all can learn.
Laughter, especially Karen’s, is a huge part of what makes Who Are the DeBolts? so affecting. Whereas most people might consider the prospect of more than a dozen challenged children to be depressing or intimidating, the DeBolt household is filled with companionship, joy, and music. To paraphrase another of Dorothy’s wise remarks, she considers it a happy day whenever one of the adopted children leaves—because that means the child has been given the tools to build a fulfilling life as an adult. Director John Korty, writer Janet Peoples, and editor David Webb Peoples (who later became the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of films including the 1992 Clint Eastwood Western Unforgiven) shape their material carefully. While certain tough issues are addressed, including the traumatic backgrounds of some of the adopted children, others are glossed over, such as the financial necessity of the DeBolts receiving state aid to help pay medical bills for their children. As such, Who Are the DeBolts? falls somewhere between a celebration of its subject and a genuine investigation; the filmmakers are less interested in complicated answers to the title question than in conveying the empowering spirit of the DeBolt household.
Nonetheless, Who Are the DeBolts? has many potent scenes, such as a climactic moment depicting the excruciatingly long process of J.R. walking from the DeBolt house to the curb so he can catch a school bus. Implied in this scene, however, is the beautiful notion at the center of Who Are the DeBolts?—no matter how rough things are for J.R., he’s got a house filled with loving people who are cheering him toward success. FYI, since Who Are the DeBolts? is very short (72 minutes), it’s worth watching the film in tandem with a 1980 made-for-TV sequel, the 45-minute program Steppin’ Out: The DeBolts Grow Up. Together, these films tell a sweet story of adversity, compassion, and triumph.
Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?: GROOVY