Temple Grandin has received raves from critics and the autism community alike on it’s February release. It stands head and shoulders above the rest of the movies on autism that have been made in the past. Temple Grandin takes you inside the mind of someone on the autism spectrum. It shows you the unique way that the autistic brain works, and brings you to a place of understanding that people on the spectrum are indeed different, but by no means does that make them inferior to the rest of us in any way. It’s impossible for me to find anything not to like about this carefully crafted and well acted true story of someone triumphing over their difficulties to positively impact the entire world with the gift of their autism. Temple Grandin is available for pre-order on amazon.com
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is the first movie for which Leonardo DiCaprio was (rightly) nominated for an Oscar. His brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Arnie Grape, a boy who is on the autism spectrum, was flawless. This movie manages to show the point of view of a burned out caregiver while portraying the special needs person sympathetically instead of in a patronizing or belittling way in spite of a significant level of impairment. It illustrates the family impact and social stigma of handicaps, and how much the friendship of an understanding outsider can bless a family with a special needs child. The downside: A minor storyline about an extra marital affair takes away valuable time from the rest of the movie. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is available through the Grand Prairie Libarary, Netflix, and Hulu.com as well as local Blockbuster Video stores.
Adam released on DVD in December and, in an interesting twist, stars the real-life husband of Claire Danes, Hugh Dancy. A lovely movie that is refreshingly accurate in it’s characterization of Aspergers syndrome, Adam’s love interest was the only minor buzzkill in what was supposed to be a sweet romance. While the plot device of having a neurotypical person “reach out” and see past the outward quirks of someone on the spectrum was a good idea, Rose Byrne’s turn as the whiny and selfish girlfriend was dampened by poor acting and an unnecessary subplot. While accurately showing the struggles Aspies experience fitting into society, Adam never did the one thing that would have been helpful to people “on the outside”–we never got inside Adam’s head to experience from within what he was feeling and thinking. A great ending that illustrates the ability of those on the spectrum to grow and change helped redeem any small grievances I had with the film. Adam is not locally available but can be found at Netflix.
Autism: The Musical is a documentary that shows the remarkable work of a theater director who wants to take children on the spectrum and have them grow and touch the community by putting on a stage show. Wonderful in it’s realism, it has an optimistic slant in spite of the fact that it shows the real life struggles of families, including one family going through a divorce. Autism the Musical is available from the Arlington Public Library and Netflix.
Not So Great:
Mozart and the Whale is a 2007 release starring Josh Hartnett as a young man with Aspergers who leads an autism support group and enters into a relationship with a wild and carefree young woman who is also on the spectrum but is higher functioning than he. It shows many different kinds of people with autism, from high functioning to profound. It shows that people on the spectrum are perfectly capable of love and friendship, it just might look differently than typical people are used to. It gives some clues into the way people on the spectrum think and see the world. The downside: The movie feels a bit too obvious when it comes to the makeup of the characters. “Take 7 examples of different kinds of autism and stick them in a room together to show people what autism is.” It feels a bit too formulaic. While this story is based on real life, it skips an important piece of the puzzle when it shows the relationship struggles, then shows the resolution without showing us what the couple did to work out their problems. It would have been useful and informative for people on the spectrum and those not to see what the two main characters actually did to make things work for them.
Snow Cake is little known movie from 2006 that released straight to DVD. Starring Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, and Carrie Ann Moss, Snow Cake has some high points but is mostly confusing and implausible. Sigourney Weaver plays an autistic woman who has lost her daughter in a car accident. The writing of the character is ridiculous, and the acting is almost always over the top. It’s as though the writer took all the behavioral traits typical of autism and put them in one character. Sometimes she is very Aspergian and then suddenly she’s spinning shiny objects or rolling in the yard. Had they chosen to highlight one type of autism the character would have been far more believable. That aside, the plot of the movie is so ridiculous it’s a bit minor to even mention the poor representation of autism. The randomness of the characters and the very slow beginning all add up to a movie that is really not worth the two hours it takes to watch. The one bright spot: the autistic character grows and changes at the end and the community grows and changes with her.
Rain Man is the only cultural reference that our society had for several decades of the concept of autism. While it was an Oscar-winning movie that some people have embraced, there is a growing backlash (maybe too strong a word) from parents of children on the spectrum towards it. For one, the real-life person who the movie was based on was reclassified as having savant syndrome and not autism several years ago. Kim Peek, an amazing man who had a congenital brain defect, was supposed to be profoundly retarded because of his condition and his parents were told to institutionalize him. They refused. Had Kim Peek’s parents chosen to listen to the doctors, it is almost impossible to imagine that his giftedness would have been nurtured in an institution. It is highly doubtful that the world would have ever head of Kim Peek or experienced that beautiful brilliance firsthand as so many people now have. You never hear of amazing talented people who have overcome their disabilities because their parents agreed with the doctors that their cause was hopeless and shuttering them in an institution was a good idea. No story with a happy ending starts that way. It always starts with the parents saying “NO, my child deserves a fighting chance and I will work hard to make sure he gets it.” Kim Peek, Temple Grandin, and Rick Hoyt are all examples of people with disabilities who went on to achieve far above what was ever expected of them all because their parents refused to institutionalize them. Rain Man is a movie that has been replaced by far better films on the same topic.
Not about autism but still relevant and good:
Phoebe in Wonderland is a heartwrenching and visually stunning story about a little girl who begins to struggle with a mysterious disorder. The reaction of her school and family are very similar to what parents with children on the spectrum experience and the ending is ultimately very positive and valuable. Phoebe in Wonderland is available from Netflix or local Blockbuster Stores.
The Mighty is a movie that shows how reaching out to someone with a disability ultimately enriches both your lives. It is available through amazon.com or the Movie XChange near the Parks Mall.