Movie director Chris Dowling believes that there are far too many "outdated stereotypes" when it comes to society's treatment of people with special needs, so he's using the big screen to help break down these preconceived and inaccurate notions like never before.
Dowling's new feature film "Where Hope Grows," which opened in theaters on Friday, explores themes of hope and redemption by focusing on a budding friendship between characters Calvin Campbell, an ex-baseball player who faces some major life struggles, and Produce, a young man with Down syndrome.
It's a movie that Dowling believes could have a major impact on perceptions surrounding special needs.
Consider that he purposefully chose first-time actor David DeSanctis, a young man who actually has Down syndrome, to play the role of Produce. It was a decision that is extremely rare in Hollywood, where people with special needs are rarely placed in the spotlight.
"We're kind of stuck with these outdated stereotypes ... a lot of times it's just ignorance. If you're not familiar on a personal level it could be a scary thing," Dowling told TheBlaze on Friday. "What the character Produce does is he gives you a personal experience ... it rocks everyone who sees it to the core."
The director admitted that he was as "ignorant as the rest" about issues pertaining to special needs before making "Where Hope Grows," but that the experience has opened his eyes, as it intends to take people "outside the box."
Actor Kristoffer Polaha, who plays character Calvin Campbell, agreed.
"I had no idea what — if any — were going to be David's limitations," Polaha told TheBlaze, noting that far too many people are guilty of making assumptions and judging a book by its cover when it comes to Down syndrome. "It's wrong ... [DeSanctis] shattered every stereotype."
And that's the exact sentiment that DeSanctis, 23, is hoping to send to audiences as well, as he's hopeful that viewers will see beyond the label of his disability.
"[I want viewers] to take the time ... to look at my abilities and not my disabilities," he told TheBlaze. "And also I want to shatter the stereotypes."
DeSanctis is also hoping that he can inspire others with Down syndrome to "go for their dreams" and shatter stereotypes in their own right, going on to achieve jobs, careers and an education.
Throughout the filming process, DeSanctis enriched the lives of Dowling and Polaha, with the latter describing working with DeSanctis as "an incredible journey" that has also been an "important learning process" — one that he won't forget anytime soon.
"I've never been on a project that I've cared about so much. Chris Dowling wrote a really beautiful, mature treatment about faith and about redemption and second chances — and ultimately about hope," Polaha said. "When the script came on my desk, it was so hopeful ... it was just a joy to be a part of that. I wear this one a lot closer to my heart. It feels like it's been anointed from the start."
Watch a scene from "Where Hope Grows" below:
Polaha, a Christian, said that he and Dowling have regularly come together to pray for the film, noting that his faith in God continues to give him solid footing in an industry that can, at times, be difficult to navigate.
"For me, this business is so crazy — like, it's just insane," he said. "And for me, my faith is the thing that grounds me and it gives me purpose."
As for DeSanctis, he said he's grateful to walk away from filming "Where Hope Grows" with a group of friends in the cast and crew that he said have become like family. He's also hoping to bring attention to a nonprofit called Angels in Disguise, a charity that is "dedicated to promoting Down syndrome awareness and appreciation."
"I want people to have faith, hope and love, and to be a part of a family — and there's a group called Angels in Disguise," DeSanctis said. "They've been adopting babies that have Down syndrome and putting them into families, and I want families out there to receive people who have Down syndrome, so that they're lives can change forever."