Surprise! I wasn’t expecting to do another review quite so soon. I wasn’t expecting to have anything to review for this blog’s audience. Then, I watched Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah (who plays Vi Rose) and Dolly Parton (who plays G.G.) and knew I had another review.
Now, going into this movie, I didn’t expect the topic of autism to come up. Yet, when Walter, the son of Vi Rose, appeared I had to wonder. His behavior, even in the brief snippet in the car, seemed familiar. Then, at the table, it seemed likely, but I still wasn’t expecting for them to come out and say it.
Then, in trying to explain away his apparent rudeness to Randy, a new-comer to their party, Vi Rose says, “There’s really nothing you can do when he’s like this. This is Asperger’s Syndrome.” The young man sits down, striking an accepting and friendly tone of behavior, and interacts on with him on Walter’s terms—and makes a connection.
Of course, this kind of interaction is not what the movie is about. The movie is about a church choir (and the people within the choir) trying to give their struggling town something to cheer about by competing in a national music competition. It’s also about how Randy and Vi Rose’s daughter fall in love. Still, this extra element adds unexpected depth and weight to the storyline.
For a good fifteen minutes, Walter doesn’t appear again. But when he does, he talks about how it feels to be the outcast, to not understand the social cues that drive our intensely social world, and how it feels to be bullied. Randy makes a few missteps—the alien metaphor is used, unfortunately—but overall the scene shows once again how well they connect and what it means to connect—when to accept limits and when to push/encourage someone to do something they enjoy.
The scene that really gets me, though, is when Walter tells his pious mother that he hates God, because God made him “this way.” He also confesses that he wants to be normal for his mother’s sake. She says, “When someone don’t fit into a neat little box, the answer ain’t to squeeze them in even harder. You build a bigger box.”
Part of the reason this scene struck me was because it shows how our actions often conflict with our beliefs. Vi Rose believes what she says. She means what she says. But, at the same time, Walter’s feelings don’t come from a vacuum. Often our actions are shaped by in-grained prejudices we may not even be aware of, and that’s the case in this story. Vi Rose loves her son. She’s proud of her son. At the same time, she’s embarrassed by him. She fumbles to explain him—the scene at the dinner table, for example. All these behaviors send signals about the way she sees him to him and to others, signals that belie her words of love and acceptance. She’s completely unaware of what she’s doing, of course, which is why she’s so surprised to hear that message translated back to her by her son. She doesn’t mean it, but she lives it and it shows.
We all need to take care that our actions don’t belie the words of love and acceptance we shower on our children, because our actions speak louder than our words.