In one of the scenes in short film Safety Net, a young boy is shown jumping on his bed, while his foster mother talks to him from the bathroom.
“I bought Red Bull,” the woman, played by, Nikki Shiels, calls.
“Can I have some?” the boy asks.
“It’ll stunt your growth,” she answers.
“I’m already stunted,” the boy quips back.
It’s a line delivered with perfect timing and punch by 13-year-old William Best, a Canberra boy in his break-out role.
And while his talent has already earned him critical acclaim, the gravity of his casting holds so much more weight.
Best has cerebral palsy, which causes him pain and restricts his movement at times.
Safety Net references the boy’s disability, but it is not the focus of the story — and for many, it is a welcome change.
Disability ‘not the most interesting thing about us as individuals’
Safety Net was released as part of the 67th Sydney Film Festival: Virtual Edition and Awards, and is director Anthea Williams’ first film.
The story follows a troubled kid who goes into emergency care after his mother is arrested, but who also happens to live with a disability.
Not making Best’s disability the focus of the story was a careful choice made by Williams, who has rheumatoid arthritis.
“A huge percentage of our population live with disability, and yet when you see someone with disability on stage that is generally the great challenge that they’re dealing with, but that’s not how our lives work,” she said.
Williams is motivated by both a goal to see more disabled people on screen, and to see them elevated to roles previously earned by able-bodied actors, where disability is not the focus.
“William and I both bonded over that,” she said.
“This is just a facet of this child’s life, and that was really important to me. It is not key to the story, and I think we need to see more and more of that.”
That philosophy is something that really appealed to Best, who joked that he was initially attracted to the role of 12-year-old Terry for the same reasons as other people.
Best first started showing an interest in theatre during kindergarten, because he liked the feeling of being able to escape.
“I don’t like being disabled,” he said.
“And especially when I was in my first play… it made me feel like I wasn’t disabled, and that was a good time when I was on stage and I was someone else.”
Auditioning for a film was a long-held dream of Best’s, and he threw himself into the Safety Net audition head-first.
“They sent through the script — I read through it tons of times,” he said.
“I could memorise it by the time I was done reading it.”
Will’s humour made him ‘the right person for the role’
Having grown up with rheumatoid arthritis, Williams can relate to what it is like to be a child who is not able-bodied.
“There’s a section in the film where the kid decides to jump on the bed,” she said.
“And we’ve seen films where kids jump on beds before, because that’s what children do, but when I was a child that cost something in terms of it was going to be a difficult, painful and possibly disaster-inducing event.
“And that’s what it is for [his] character.”
Best’s cerebral palsy did throw up challenges — the stiffness in his limbs and hands made it difficult to do some of the work, including the jumping on the bed scene.
But the acting work was even more challenging — playing a young boy suffering a separation from his mother was emotionally demanding, and Best was expected to break down in tears on cue.
His performance has earned him critical praise, and a feature length version of Safety Net is in the works.
Williams described Best’s performance in her film as “brilliant”.
“We met with him and he was just so intelligent and wise beyond his years, but with a great youthful energy. He was cheeky,” she said.
Best’s dream is to star in “a huge horror movie”, and he hopes his role will inspire more directors to look past disability.
“One thing I hope is that people don’t go to the ‘Oh, he’s such a hero,’ in the sort of inspo-porn way,” Best said.
“But I hope they can go, ‘Oh, they can actually kick arse, they’re fantastic.’
“My story isn’t, ‘William Best, disabled actor.’
“It’s just, ‘William Best, actor’ — and a kick-arse actor, if I do say so myself.”