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For forty years, April has been a month not just to celebrate the Easter holidays or, in the case of this year, a Royal wedding, but to increase the awareness of Autism, a form of special needs that makes it hard for people to communicate and socialize.
As an autistic person, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to look at some of the films that do not just focus on this form of special needs, but that have also changed the way that these characters have been portrayed in numerous films from the late eighties and early nineties (Rain Man, Little Man Tate and I Am Sam).
From visual representations to delving into different genres that have not been seen before, the rise of awareness and understanding in society has been reflected in the media and we will take a look at three key films that have encountered this topic in various points-of-views.
Mozart and the Whale (dir. Petter Naess) – 2005
While many films using this subject matter are usually dramas, this is probably the first romantic drama involving two characters with Asperger’s Syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism).
The film follows Donald Morton (Josh Hartnett), a young man who is a kind, but troublesome, taxi driver who also runs a small group for autistic people. But when the complicated and beautiful Isabelle Sorenson (Radha Mitchell) joins the group, Donald starts to date her and they soon encounter problems within their relationship which they try to fix in their own unique ways.The film is loosely based on the relationship between Jerry and Mary Newport, who are both well known authors in the autism community.
This was Naess’ first American production and while the film was made on only twelve million dollars and starred Josh Hartnett (who was well received as a recognizable heartthrob in Black Hawn Down, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Hollywood Homicide and Sin City), the film unfortunately bombed at the box office, with a total domestic gross of just over thirty six thousand dollars. But considering the fact that it’s widest release was only at five theaters, the distrust from the distributors ruined the film’s box office results.
It has been shown at numerous Autism conventions and screenings for the majority of people on and off the Autism Spectrum, as it is these amount of people who believe that the film portrays the characters with Asperger’s Syndrome in a positive light. The film’s use of autistic characters in a romantic drama inspired another film to use this approach: Adam. While Adam was more successful at the box office, it has not had the same attention as Mozart and the Whale.
Chocolate (dir. Prachya Pinkaew) – 2008
Many filmmakers would not dare to fuse Autism and the martial arts genre, but director Pinkaew crossed the line to make one of the most bizarre and unique films in the genre in recent years.
Young woman Zen (Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda) is an autistic who has managed to develop martial arts techniques by watching action films on television and looking at the martial arts school that is placed next to her. Her skills prove to be so incredible, that she is able to catch objects without even looking! But after Zen’s mother falls ill, she sets off to settle the debts that her mother has accrued years ago between two rival gangs and this leads to some action and confrontation with dangerous criminals.
Having previously directed a bunch of acclaimed martial arts films (including Ong-Bak), the director’s films have become popular among the DVD market, being the most successful market for western audiences, and Chocolate is no exception. The overall domestic gross and international sales has convinced the producers to create the sequel, which is due to be released next year in 3D.
What makes this film in particular an interesting case is that this is one of the few films that have experimented these types of characters in genres that has not really been introduced to audiences before. Dark Floors was part of the horror genre, while Ben X is part of the thriller genre and they are both the only known films within their own genres that have autistic characters.
Temple Grandin (dir. Mack Jackson) – 2010
Released last year from HBO, this television film is the biography on one of the most famous autistic people in the world and due to it’s ratings and critical acclaim last year, it is currently airing on Sky Atlantic.
The film follows the younger years of how Grandin developed her own approaches towards dealing with everyday life and how her study in cattle changed the way North American slaughter houses operated.
Since being aired in America, it has been critically acclaimed by major reviewers and critics and one of the reasons why this is one of the three films I wanted to discuss is because this has been one of the most successful productions to focus on an autistic character. Most of these films very rarely make their money back at the box office and the studio could spend less money and receive a healthy profit by being available for television, which arguably has a bigger reach than the cinema audience. Also, this is probably one of the most respectable and honest interpretations on an autistic person and if you have not seen it yet, you can still catch it on Sky Atlantic.