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April 2011



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Mozart and the Whale



Variety critic Leslie Felperin responded to her son’s diagnosis by watching every movie about autism she could find

Some parents go into understandable denial when confronted with the evidence that their child is on the autism spectrum, and some become consumed with a zealous need to seek a cure or ameliorate the symptoms with therapies. Given my profession, my way of dealing with our three-year-old son’s diagnosis of an autistic spectrum condition (ASC) has been to try and understand the condition as best I could through reading books and watching movies about people with autism. So for the last two years, my husband Tom and I have been working our way – frequently in tears, sometimes laughing with recognition – through as many features and documentaries about people with the condition as we could source. It seems to me from where I’m sitting (on the sofa and in the cinemas) that there are far more, and many more varied, cinematic depictions of autism than there ever were before. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that, now, the condition is much more frequently diagnosed.

Rain Man


We started our home autism film festival, naturally enough, with Barry Levinson’s Oscar-winner Rain Man. For many people – myself included – this was their first exposure to the notion of autism, and back in 1988 I was rather impressed with it. Now, having been a film critic for 20-odd years, and more importantly after learning so much about ASC, the film seems deeply flawed – both aesthetically (it’s more mawkish and slow-moving than I remembered) and in terms of how it treats the condition, promulgating as it does the very misleading notion that people with autism are likely to be savants with incredible memory skills, when the vast majority of them aren’t.

Snow Cake


Even more irksome is the way the main function of the story’s autistic character, played by Dustin Hoffman, is to serve as a vehicle for delivering redemption – and, due to aptitude at card counting, a big bag of blackjack money to Tom Cruise as his shallow, car-dealer brother. Several other films have deployed autistic characters in a similar way – as quasi-holy innocents whose narrative function is to inspire those around them to be better people. There’s Nell (1994), for example, in which Jodie Foster’s autistic backwoods woman helps Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, playing her doctors, fall in love. Snow Cake (2006), in which Sigourney Weaver’s high-functioning autistic inspires Alan Rickman to get over grief for his dead son, is slightly less cringe-inducing than Nell, thanks largely to Weaver’s more credible, tics-and-all portrait.

My Name Is Khan


But something has seemed to shift seismically in the last five years or so, and people on the spectrum can now feature as proper protagonists, with the condition no longer their only defining characteristic. In the case of Bollywood megahit My Name Is Khan (2010), Shahrukh Kahn’s title character’s Muslim faith is just as important, and as much an engine for the film’s baroque melodrama, as the fact that he has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Adam (2009) is a far from perfect romantic drama, but at least it shows Hugh Dancy’s eponymous “aspie” hero trying to have a sexual relationship with a neurotypical woman (ie someone not on the spectrum) rather than just inspiring others to fall in love.

Temple Grandin


Of the recent crop of features about people on the spectrum, one of the strongest is biopic Temple Grandin, a made-for-HBO movie (it screened on Sky Atlantic on Sunday night) about arguably the world’s most famous person with ASC. Based extensively on her own autobiographical writings, the film follows Grandin (played as an adult by Claire Danes) through her childhood and young adult years as she learns to use her own growing understanding of her condition as a means to gain insight into how animals think, ultimately becoming a veterinary scientist. Deeply cherished in our house for its scabrous honesty is Mary and Max (2009), an animated account of a penpal friendship between a young girl in Australia and a middle-aged man with Asperger’s which doesn’t stint on showing the alienation and loneliness experienced by people with the condition.

Mary & Max


Some of the recent documentaries made about autism are even better, not just in terms of explaining and illustrating the nature of ASC but also as examples of excellent film-making. This year, the Thessaloniki documentary festival showcased some of the very best, alongside films about Down’s syndrome and other conditions, and programmer Elena Christopoulou was kind enough to send me several DVDs from the showcase.

Her Name Is Sabine


There are roughly two types of documentaries about autism: overviews, which tend to feature an ensemble cast whose degree of impairment spans the spectrum, and single-subject stories that follow one person or a family through a particular period.



Of the overviews, the two best I’ve ever seen are The Autism Puzzle, made in 2003 but still very relevant, and the last year’s Neurotypical. The Autism Puzzle is freely available online and skilfully blends stories about people with ASC (including director Saskia Baron’s own brother) into a history of the condition’s discovery, and interviews with experts. Neurotypical concentrates more on giving a voice to people with the condition who see autism not as a disability but as a difference to be proud of. My favourite bit features a highly articulate man with ASC who recalls crying as a child at the end of Disney’s The Jungle Book because he couldn’t bear to see Mowgli join the human village, a world he felt he’d never been accepted into.

Maria Y Yo(Maria and I)


The single-subject stories deal with a similar range of people and an even more heterogeneous range of attitudes about autism. Some depict families intent on finding ways to “recover” their children from autism with alternative therapies (Beautiful Son, by Don and Julianne King, and to an extent The Horse Boy by Michel Orion Scott), and some focus on those deeply damaged by institutionalisation (including actor Sandrine Bonnaire’s harrowing account of her own sister’s autism, Her Name is Sabine).



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