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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

  • Posted on July 9, 2012 at 8:00 AM

This movie about the problems a child, particularly a child with neurological differences, has in processing events that, in the mother’s words, just don’t make sense.  A little boy loses his father, whom he identifies with and who understands him, to the 9/11 attacks.  A year later he finds a key; keys unlock something; and he thinks if he can find what the key unlocks he can hold onto his father for a little longer, maybe forever.  The unspoken message is that he hopes, by fulfilling this mission, he can make sense of his father’s death.

But his father’s death doesn’t make sense.  Some things don’t, no matter how hard we try to make sense of them.  As human beings, we have to live with the nonsensical.  But some of us struggle with that more than others.

I never endured a significant loss and I never lived anywhere quite as busy and overwhelming as New York City.  As a child, I wasn’t nearly so conscious of my own anxiety or my sensory overload.  Yet, I identify with the little boy in this movie as he struggles to overlay order on chaos, as he tries to make sense of the nonsensical, as he clings to what provided him with comfort and understanding, as he fights against his own limitations, and as he experiences the world with a heightened sense of determination.

I also get the mother, who isn’t quite like her son, who has been left without the interpreter that helped her to meet his needs, and her determination—and struggle—to fill in the large gap left by her husband while dealing with her own grief and loneliness and confusion and pain.

But there is another side of this.  A side that could give advocates fits.

This movie could be perceived one of two ways:

  • It skirts the implications of an Asperger’s diagnosis by focusing on the experiences of the main character without labeling them.
  • It abdicates its “responsibility” to make a conscious point concerning the limiting effects of diagnostic politics in providing appropriate care and support to those who need it.

As a writer, I understand why it would be important to skirt the issue of autism.  For one, unless you live it, it’s very difficult to research well enough to satisfy the critics among those who do live it.  Somebody’s always going to find fault with your portrayal, even if you are intimately familiar with autism, because you’re not intimately familiar with their autism.  Second, by labeling the experiences of a character, you tend to distance viewers who don’t identify with the label from the character’s experiences.  Third, by labeling a character, you label your movie in a way that dominates the story.  So, I can certainly empathize with the decision not to label the character.

On the other hand, involving people with the appropriate label can minimize criticism of your portrayal while also grounding the character in reality.  Labeling the character also validates the truth that stories about people who are labeled in a similar manner are worth telling, which also validates the humanity of those who share the label.  Finally, by labeling a character you challenge people’s preconceived prejudices that people who carry the label are “other” and therefore they cannot be identified with.  So, I can certainly empathize with those who are disappointed in the choice not to label the character.

Perhaps more importantly, the choice to almost label the character brings up an entirely new issue.  According to the main character, the tests for Asperger’s were inconclusive.  By what the movie shows, the child was challenged with a disability.  He faced barriers to his goals that consisted of the combination of his own neurology and a world designed not to accommodate his neurology.  Over the course of the story, he had to face and overcome (or not) those barriers himself.  Yet the movie doesn’t address how the lack of a label prevented the boy from accessing services that could have helped him.  The movie didn’t address the unfairness or inadequacy of services, which it could and arguably should have done.

So, while I applaud the story, I can’t help but be disappointed in the lack of a conscious attempt to address the failure to effectively support this family—at least, to acknowledge that supports, accommodations and other services could have benefited this family.

Success Can Be Its Own Adversity

  • Posted on June 11, 2012 at 8:00 AM

One of the common threads in discussing autism, Asperger’s and associated neurological differences is the challenge of discrimination and the lack of opportunity.  One of the threads that seems less common, if not entirely ignored, is the adversity of success.

With success brings the expectation—often overwhelming—to perform successfully.  This is emboldening when that performance is accessible, but it can be extremely disheartening when that success is out of reach.  As many of us know, ability is variable.  Some days we can do more than we can on most days.  Some days we can do less that we can on most days.  What we can do any given day, even a normal day, isn’t the same from day to day.  Add the stress to perform and that variability can increase exponentially.  Now this is, to a degree, true for everyone.  With autism, this variance is heightened and enunciated in a way that seems dramatic, even odd.  It makes the normal level of unpredictability seem predictable in comparison.

What makes this especially unfortunate is the days that we must perform are not always the days that we can perform.  I see this in my children and in myself.  These are the days when our successes come back to bite us.  We are expected to do, so we try, but we can’t and the frustration mounts, making it even harder to do and even harder to explain why we can’t, because everyone already knows we can or, rather, that we could without seeing the difference between the two.

How do you deal with success?  How do your children deal with success?  Do you give yourself or your children permission not to succeed even when you know, on another day, at another time you or your children could do what they can’t do at the moment?  It’s hard to do so, but it’s necessary.  Some days we can.  Some days we can’t.  Even when we usually can, there are still some days when we simply can’t, try as we might, as much as we want to, it’s just simply inevitably and unalterably out of reach.

Review: Adam

  • Posted on March 28, 2011 at 8:03 AM

Adam tells the story of an Aspie, named Adam, who must adjust to some major life-changes, including the death of his father, meeting a woman who becomes his girlfriend, and losing his job.  The story is told with an awareness of the neurodiversity movement, which I like.  I also like how this awareness is used to characterize Adam, not as a major plot element in the story.  Self-advocacy and the inherent worth of people with Asperger’s is a subtle power throughout the story, but it’s not “the” story.

I watched this movie with my husband for our “date night.”  In retrospect, it might not have been the best “date” movie, but we were both engaged throughout the movie.  We found the story compelling, though some parts were painful to watch.

Despite the strong influence of the neurodiversity movement, this isn’t an advocacy piece.  There are elements of advocacy inherent in the story, but the movie is about the story not the advocacy—which makes it a stronger work of art, in my opinion.

I am a bit concerned by how stereotyped the main character, Adam, seemed to be.  Max Mayer, the writer and director of Adam, credited “lead actor Hugh Dancy with a lot of the character’s success,” which suggests to me that both Mayer and Dancy are responsible for the stereotype.  Unfortunately, this “universal” depiction of Asperger’s seems a default position when people outside a specific sub-group of the human population try to portray people within a sub-group.  However respectful they try to be there’s a reliance on a recognizable conglomeration of characteristics that, inevitably, come across as a stereotype.  (Not an excuse, just my explanation for a disappointing element in the movie.)

For the most part, the movie was satisfying.  I especially liked Frankie Faison as Harlan, who has his own story that was suggested but not really told.  I wish the ending was a bit more satisfying, but sometimes art must reflect life and life isn’t always satisfying.


  • Posted on September 25, 2009 at 12:00 PM

I’ve gotten so caught up in the many tasks I’m obliged to do, and watching Season 1 of Fringe on DVD, that I forgot I was supposed to be seeking out new and familiar blogs.  So, I went looking today and found quite a few “new to me” blogs and wanted to share this one with you.

Elesia of Aspitude! is a woman with Asperger’s who is also a Research Assistant for Academic Autistic Spectrum Partnership In Research and Education (AASPIRE).  She recently wrote a post called The Fingerprint of Autism that reminds people that each person on the autistic spectrum is a unique individual.  As obvious as that seems to me, it really is worth saying, because there are people who just don’t get it.

Besides, there’s a really cool picture of a blue butterfly!  What can I say, I appreciate pretty things. :-)