Of the dozen films I’ve streamed from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, two have stood out as remarkable works of empathy. The first is Little Girl, a delicate, affecting documentary about a French girl’s struggles with gender dysphoria. The second is The Reason I Jump. Winner of the Audience Award for world documentaries at this year’s Sundance, it handles a similarly sensitive topic – in this case, the experiences of young adults with nonverbal autism – with gentleness and great imagination.
There is so much I love about this film, it’s hard to know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with the fact that it doesn’t privilege a White, Western view of autism. It starts with Amrit, a woman in India, and ends with Justina in Sierra Leone. In between, we meet Joss in England, then Ben and Emma in Virginia; the latter two are a Black and White pair of best friends since preschool. We get acquainted with these individuals and their parents by following them through typical activities: Ben and Emma at school, Joss verging on a meltdown when he fears a restaurant has run out of pizza, Justina with her mother and father at a soccer field.
The Reason I Jump is a film of beauty, originating from the bestselling autobiography of the same name. Written by Naoki Higashida, a nonverbal Japanese adolescent, quotations from the book are interspersed with biographical vignettes of the aforementioned young adults. Some of the book passages, read in voiceover, are joined to placid footage of a child in a red raincoat roaming a varied natural landscape. We hear others accompanied by judiciously chosen, imaginative video of objects in the youngsters’ environments. For example, when Higashida tells us that he sees details first, then the whole object, we the viewers are shown a close-up of yellow fabric, before the camera pulls back to reveal a curtain in Amrit’s home.
The director of The Reason I Jump, Jerry Rothwell, is helped immensely by his choice of crew. His editor and director of photography splice colorful moments from Joss’ present day with home video of his toddler years. This brings to life his father’s contention that his son conflates events from his 2nd birthday with happenings from 30 minutes ago, deducing that his son’s mind is “an out-of-control slide show.” (Unlike the doc’s other four subjects, Joss is sporadically, repetitively verbal, so his dad has data on which to base these suppositions.)
Likewise, Rothwell’s choice of Nick Ryan for his sound designer was a stroke of genius. Given the immersive intensity of this film’s soundscape, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Ryan is a composer and creator of multisensory artistic installations. The dense pattering of raindrops illustrates Higashida’s use of a vast “mental card index” to comprehend rain. A perfectly-timed audio muffling occurs when Joss presses his hands to his ears.
The insights in this film are in keeping with – and expansions of – those we can glean from the two other seminal films with an autism theme, Temple Grandin and Life, Animated. If you recall from Temple Grandin, the famous animal behaviorist derived technology to calm frightened cattle from her own self-soothing methods. Rothwell’s documentary shows how overstimulating the world can be for individuals with autism, demonstrating (yes) the reason they jump or spin for temporary escape.
In Life, Animated, we were introduced to Owen Suskind, a charming fellow who learned to speak and read by repetitively watching Disney movies. When Owen finally spoke, he astonished his parents with his capacity for abstraction and complex thought. Similarly, when Emma and Ben are trained in the use of a letter board, detouring around the insurmountable barrier of meaningful vocalization through motor activity, the profundity and tenderness of their statements are amazing.
The fact that I’m astonished by the capacity of nonverbal autistic folks for deep thought reveals how far I still have to go in overcoming my own stigmatizing tendencies. One of the translators of Higashida’s book, who has an autistic son himself, speaks of Western prejudices in mental health, where professionals until recently used terms like retardation for non-neurotypical patients. In The Reason I Jump, we witness this stigma in developing countries, as Justina’s parents talk about their community’s labelling of their daughter as a witch or demon-possessed. To their redounding credit, her mother and father embarked on a media campaign of education and helped found their country’s first school for autistic kids.
In my pre-writing research, I learned that Higashida’s book is not without its controversy. It’s been criticized for being platitudinous, and if I’m honest, this tendency spills infrequently into the documentary. More harmfully, some have charged that Higashida couldn’t have written The Reason I Jump, that his alleged autobiography is instead his mother’s projection, encapsulating how many parents of autistic children imagine their offspring’s subjective experience.
I have to qualify my response by admitting I’ve not studied the back-and-forth on this second question in great detail. But on the strength of this film – observing the capabilities of Amrit, Ben, and Emma in particular – these critiques carry a strong whiff of ableism for me. Audience awards at film festivals are hit-or-miss things, but in this case, the Sundance crowds got it right. For the sake of its beauty and its destigmatizing power, this is a documentary meriting a wide viewership.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )
(For help in creating your own DIY Virtual Film Fest, please read my earlier column.)