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.