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Depictions of Autism on Film

April 1, 2013

By John C.

Rain Man PosterWhat do Dustin Hoffman, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Dancy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins and Claire Danes all have in common?  Besides being great actors, they have all portrayed characters on the autism spectrum.  With tomorrow being World Autism Awareness Day, and the promising independent film The Story of Luke coming on Friday, I have been thinking a lot recently about some of the best depictions of the disorder on film.

There are plenty of great films that have characters with other developmental challenges, including those that don’t even give a diagnosis.  But these are some of the ones that have characters who actually have a form of autism or are likely suspected to be on the spectrum within the screenplay.  These twelve films are all worthwhile in their own right, for the way that they either directly or indirectly portray autism.

The first formal portrayal of autism was in Barry Levinson’s 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man, and it also remains one of the best films ever made about the subject.  When the self-centered Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) meets his estranged brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) who has autism, they are both taken down a road of self discovery that ultimately becomes a profound look at the inseparable bond of family.  The film remains one of my personal favorites for the way that it shows the relationship between two brothers, in a believable and deeply moving way.

The trend picked up again in 2005 with Mozart and the Whale, the story of a man (Josh Hartnett) who falls in love with a young woman (Radha Mitchell) who joins his support group.  This is an entertaining little movie that is worth a look for the endearing cast of characters.  Then came the small Canadian film Snow Cake in 2007, where Sigourney Weaver plays an autistic woman who’s teenage daughter is killed in a car crash, developing a friendship with the truck driver (Alan Rickman) who was involved in the accident.  Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are both excellent, and the film is worth checking out for their strong performances.

Two years later, Adam gained praise for the great performance by Hugh Dancy in the title role.  The story of a man on the spectrum falling in love with a typically developing woman (Rose Byrne), Adam nicely handles being a charming romance, as well as a reminder that real life relationships don’t always have a purely happy ending.  The animated 2009 film Mary and Max tells the story of a written friendship between a girl (Toni Collete) in Australia, and a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in New York who is on the spectrum.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s voice work is brilliant in this strikingly mature film, and the tricky subject matter is handled with a strong poignancy that makes it oddly appealing, through to the heartbreaking final few scenes.

Another film that has a character on the autism spectrum is the 2010 Nicholas Sparks adaptation Dear John.  Richard Jenkins plays the father of the title character, and he gives an excellent performance as an older man on the spectrum who was never officially diagnosed.  Although the movie is predictably pleasant, his performance is what makes it worth a look.  The immensely popular Indian actor Sharukh Khan also earned acclaim for his portrayal of someone on the spectrum in the 2010 film My Name is Khan.  Telling the sweeping dramatic story of a Muslim man who moves from India to the USA and falls in love with a Hindu woman, this is a largely moving and inspiring film that is worth seeking out.

Claire Danes also received plenty of accolades in 2010 for her portrayal of the brilliant Temple Grandin in the eponymous HBO film.  The title character is a fascinating subject, and Temple Grandin is highly recommended for the stunningly accurate performance from the great Claire Danes.  The little seen 2011 film Fly Away tells the story of a single mother (Beth Broderick) who is not only facing the increasing challenges of her own life, but also those of her teenaged daughter Mandy (Ashley Richards), who has severe autism and frequent meltdowns.  Written and directed as a passion project by David O. Russell’s ex-wife Janet Grillo, this is a believably performed film with a realistic and undeniably touching story.

Not only does the main character in the Oscar-nominated Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close appear to have high functioning autism, he also mentions getting an inconclusive diagnosis.  When Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) was ten, his father (Tom Hanks) was killed in 9/11.  Distant from his mother (Sandra Bullock), Oskar is haunted by the phone messages left by his father and his grief is heightened by confusion and a need to understand the world.  Although Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close divided a lot of people, the incredibly moving film was a personal favorite of 2011.

Although the majority of the incredibly entertaining 2012 film Joyful Noise is about a gospel choir trying to make it to a competition, there is a touching and believable subplot with Walter (Dexter Darden), a teen boy who has high functioning autism and is obsessed with one hit wonders.  Which brings us right back to The Story of Luke, where Lou Taylor Pucci plays a young man on the autism spectrum who has the same hopes and dreams of pretty much everyone else his age, to hold down a job  and find a girlfriend.  Watch out for more coverage of the film in the next little while.

From a performance standpoint, there is something fascinating about watching all of these different portrayals, for the way that they capture the many different facets often displayed by people on the autism spectrum.  Movies have the power to change our lives and even our way of thinking, so if you do your homework, then maybe we can all learn a little bit more about autism through the selection of films that I have recommended.

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