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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.

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.

Review: i am sam

  • Posted on February 19, 2011 at 3:30 AM

i am sam is a movie about a man fighting for custody of his daughter.  Sam has a below average intelligence and some autistic traits.  When his daughter is born he has a support system that is adequate to facilitate independent living for him, but nobody ensures their support system provides adequate support for his daughter.  Lucy is a happy, healthy, active child, but at her eighth birthday party a social worker takes Lucy away from Sam without any incidents of neglect and neither accusations nor incidents of abuse.  Child Protective Services assumes neglect will eventually occur because of Sam’s differences, or—as is reiterated in the movie—his inadequacies.  Then, he gets a lawyer—pro bono—who needs him as much as he needs her.  Together they fight to get Lucy back.  So, that’s the plot.

A story, of course, is more than plot.  A story is about people, not just what happens to them.  Sam is a kind, good, compassionate man who struggles with his perceived inadequacies, his lack of accommodations, and his lack of support.  Yet, despite that his personal character, his strength and his spirit are admirable.  He’s happy; he’s dedicated; and he’s good.  As much as I’d like to identify with Sam, I find myself identifying far more with his lawyer.  She tries so hard, but she’s overwhelmed and the world gets to her.  She’s not a nice, good woman—at least, not when measured by how she behaves.  I’m not as loud or as violent as she is, and I certainly am more in touch with my children.  Yet, the world gets to me.  I’m not as happy and as good as I would like to be.

This movie can trigger some pretty negative feelings.  While the movie is crafted to show Sam’s strengths and weaknesses with respect and dignity, there’s some harsh, ugly language that seems all too realistic to me.  It can be hard to watch.  But there is one scene that sums up so much.  This scene makes the movie worth watching all by itself, at least for me.  Lucy asks Sam, “Did God make you like this or was it an accident?”  Sam doesn’t know how to respond, and Lucy explains that he’s different from other daddies.  Sam says, “I’m sorry” repeatedly.  Lucy says, “Don’t be sorry.  I’m lucky.  Nobody else’s daddy comes to the park.”

The movie is not without faults, but it does a great job making a valuable point by showing why, instead of preaching.

Review: The Boy Who Could Fly

  • Posted on January 25, 2011 at 12:44 AM

Recently, I came across two movies I watched a long time ago with my cousin in my Netflix recommendations.  One of those movies was The Boy Who Could Fly, which I decided to make a priority when I realized—from reading the Netflix blurb—that it was about a boy with autism.  I hadn’t remembered that.

In retrospect, that’s understandable.  Though the character in question, Eric, is non-verbal and socially aloof, there are no other autistic traits that make him stand out as on the spectrum.  Perhaps that is a failing of the writer or the actor, but the diagnosis of autism is also questioned in the movie itself, so it might have been intentional.

This movie is a surprisingly complicated drama with a popcorn-flick feel.  The story starts with the relocation of a mother and her two children after the death of the father.  The family is struggling and the boy next door proves to be a heart-warming distraction for the girl, Milly.  While the mother struggles with re-entering the workforce and the brother struggles with a neighborhood bully, the girl befriends this boy whose odd behavior sets him apart from his peers.  This is encouraged once it becomes apparent that the boy is willing to connect with her in a way he’s never connected with anyone before.  Of course, the boy has problems of his own, including the looming possibility of forced institutionalization and the semi-neglect of his drunken uncle, who is his legal guardian due to the tragic deaths of both the boy’s parents.

There are things I really liked, like how the teachers made an effort to include Eric, even though it required effort.  I like how they show a balance between the forces that respect Eric and those that do not.  But there was also little resistance to the ablism that persisted throughout the movie, and that I didn’t like so much.

One scene I really like is when Milly, by chance, discovers that connecting with Eric has a lot to do with following his lead, much the same way he connected with her by following her lead.  I don’t know whether this was realized by the movie makers, but it was clear from the story—at least to me, but of course I’ve done that myself with my own children.  This is spoiled, however, when Milly tries to make Eric perform like a trick pony.  When he fails to perform, she tells him “Don’t do this to me, Eric,” as if his unwillingness to perform is an intentional effort to humiliate her.  She never seems to realize that she is doing anything wrong to him.

So, it’s iffy.  I don’t love it.  I don’t hate it.  It has potential that could have been better realized, but it’s also a movie from 1986.  If that seems like an excuse, so be it.

Still, I’m trying hard not to be disappointed.  Is there no place in society for a boy who can re-ignite our ability to dream?  Find out for yourself.  Me, I think there’s room for a sequel.