In a film industry that tends to glamorize and oversimplify disease and disability, autism isn’t always accurately depicted. It’s a frustrating reality, especially if you know firsthand what it’s like to live with the condition.
The Mighty decided to take a look at seven films released over the last 30 years that received praise for how autism was portrayed. Take a look:
1. The Story of Luke (2012)
When his grandmother and caretaker passes away, Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci), a sheltered 25-year-old with autism, must learn to navigate an unfamiliar world. Luke determinedly sets out to find a job and fall in love.
In an interview with Disability Scoop, Alonso Mayo, the film’s writer and director, said students at the school his mother runs for people with developmental disabilities inspired him to write the script. “They wanted a girlfriend, they wanted to start living life on their own,” Mayo told Disability Scoop. “I started seeing these young adults having the same issues everyone else has around relationships and independence.”
2. Fly Away (2011)
This moving film centers on Jeanne (Beth Broderick) and her relationship with her daughter, Mandy (Ashley Rickards), a teenager with autism. As Mandy gets older and her needs change, Jeanne works to reconcile her own goals for daughter with what is actually best for Mandy.
Janet Grillo, the film’s writer and director who has a son with autism, told Bitch Media she hopes families who have children with autism find solace in having their stories told. “This is a community that has been in a great deal of pain and continues to be engaged in a very profound struggle,” Grillo said. “I felt it was important for us, first and foremost, to honor through storytelling.” She added that she sees the film as a tool of activism and hopes it has an impact on the way society views adults with autism.
3. Adam (2009)
This romantic comedy centers on Adam (Hugh Dancy), an electronics engineer with autism who strikes up a relationship with Beth (Rose Byrne), his upstairs neighbor.
Adams exhibits obsessive behavior, social awkwardness and a tendency to feel overwhelmed that’s characteristic of people on the spectrum. In a review for The New York Times, Jeanette Catsoulis wrote that Dancy’s performance is “credibly eccentric yet still accessible” and that the actor “reflects a mind drawn to symmetry and familiarity. So when the dreamy Beth moves into his building and his life, Adam… is forced to develop a whole new set of coping skills.”
4. Mary and Max (2009)
This clay-animated black comedy begins in Australia in 1976, when Mary Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore), an 8-year-old who has trouble fitting in, picks up a New York City telephone book, chooses Max Jerry Horowitz’s name at random and writes him a letter. Max (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), 44-year-old man, initially experiences an anxiety attack upon receiving Mary’s letter but decides to write back, and the two strike up a lifelong friendship.
Preferring to be referred to as an “Aspie,” Max sees nothing wrong with his condition. He writes to Mary (clip below), “I do not feel disabled, defective or a need to be cured. I like being an Aspie. It would be like trying to change the color of my eyes.”
5. The Black Balloon (2008)
“The Black Balloon” portrays an Australian family with two sons. The oldest brother, Charlie (Luke Ford), has autism and ADD. Having just moved to Sydney, the younger brother, 15-year-old Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), is desperate to make friends and live a normal life, but Charlie constantly embarrasses him. With the help of his new girlfriend, Jacki (Gemma Ward), he learns to accept his brother for who he is and stops trying to hide such a big part of what defines his family.
The film depicts the nuances of what it’s like to live with someone who has autism. Charlie can be lovable and endearing, but he also throws tantrums, screaming and inflicting physical harm on his family members. “The story elements of ‘The Black Balloon’ could have been manipulated to make the film false and cute,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “The film tries to be true. The uplift comes in how the family and Jackie respond to Charlie… They are focused on doing what needs to be done. Charlie is theirs.”
6. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
With his father dead and his mother unable to care for her children on her own, Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) becomes the primary caregiver for his younger brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenager who has autism. Gilbert becomes fiercely protective of Arnie, who, because he doesn’t understand social expectations and norms, is always getting into some kind of trouble.
Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, wrote that “the film has a powerful message for our society, which remains just as relevant today: that people with autism need huge levels of support and so do their (often overlooked and forgotten) families.”
7. The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)
Eric Gibb (Jay Underwood), a teenager with nonverbal autism, has a tendency to stand on rooftops and window ledges as if he can fly. His behavior alarms those around him, but when he saves Milly (Lucy Deakins), the 14-year-old girl who moved in next door, from a deadly fall, everyone begins to wonder if he really can fly after all.
This film is notable for demonstrating how people with nonverbal autism communicate with others before communication technology and devices were more widely available. “One of the things that appealed to me in ‘The Boy Who Could Fly’ is that the kid doesn’t speak,” Underwood told The Orlando Sentinel. “I would have to rely on other things rather than just my voice, like facial expressions and body language.”
How well do you think these films represented autism? Let us know in the comments below.
Read about “Rain Man” and other films that portray disability here.
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