Autism on Screen- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss the portrayal of autism in the 1993 comedy-drama film ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘ starring Johnny Depp, a young Leonardo Dicaprio and Juliette Lewis (who ironically portrayed an autistic character in ‘The Other Sister‘ a few years later).

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The story follows Gilbert Grape (Depp) a young man living in a rural town in Iowa as he takes care of his obese mother and autistic brother Arnie (Dicaprio). The film explores Gilbert’s life and struggles to take care of his family whilst trying to forge a life of his own.

If you haven’t seen this classic, here’s the trailer:

So how does the film fare in it’s depiction of autism?

Autism is not explicitly mentioned as such in this film, but most experts agree that Arnie’s traits align with those of autism. His repetitive movements, echolalia, self injurious behaviours, use of atypical speech, preference for routine, his childlike nature, mind-blindness and lack of danger perception (he has a fondness for climbing the town water tower) all indicate that Arnie is on the spectrum. This is also one of the few films where the autist is not portrayed as a savant so that’s a refreshing change!

Leonardo Dicaprio’s acting is, as always, sublime- he even received his first ever Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Arnie in this role. In particular I felt that the depiction of meltdowns was quite good, however, the most striking aspect of the film, as in Atypical, was how it highlights the struggles that the wider family often experiences with autism, particularly where siblings are concerned. Gilbert loves Arnie dearly, but taking care of him and his entire family takes it’s toll.

The film also takes a more lighthearted approach at times to Arnie’s eccentricities. Arnie’s lack of filter delivers some of the more humorous moments in the film, which like Atypical, allows us to see the funnier side of autism- yes autism can be challenging, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

All in all ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘ gives a fairly decent representation of autism, but either way- the film is worth a watch just for Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance. This film really was a sign of things to come for him! πŸ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ˜€

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Mercury Rising

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so today I would like to take a quick look at the 1998 political action film (not a genre one would immediately associate with autism)- ‘Mercury Rising‘.

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So how does this action film relate to autism?

In this film, the NSA has created a cryptographic super-code (Mercury) that was thought to be unbreakable by any computer in the world. However, following the release of the code in a childrens puzzle book in order to test it, autistic savantΒ (not again!!! πŸ˜› ) Simon easily cracks it. This simple act puts his life in danger as contract killers are sent to silence him as the NSA believe him to be a liability. FBI agent Art Jeffries, played by Bruce Willis, is assigned the difficult task of protecting Simon from these killers whilst also navigating the social and behavioural challenges associated with his autism.

You can check out a trailer for the film below:

Honestly, I found the film to be particularly tedious (not a desirable quality for an action film), and really struggled to make it through to the end. 2 hours is a loooong time for a boring film! πŸ˜›

As to the film’s portrayal of autism, you know what I’m going to say- we NEED to stop perpetuating the stereotype of the autistic savant! As I have discussed many times, this is a RARE characteristic (roughly 1 in 10 autists), and yet almost every film I’ve seen that features autism depicts this rare trait in some form or another! πŸ˜›

Give me strength!

Aside from this, whilst the film did touch on such important topics as ‘wandering’ and issues of trust (which are not always depicted where autism is considered), I just felt that this character was highly stereotyped and that autism was poorly portrayed overall and at times was a little insulting. In fact the original book that this film is based on was titled ‘Simple Simon!’πŸ˜²πŸ˜’

This may even perhaps be one of the worst depictions of autism on screen in my opinion.

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So all in all, if you need a good sedative, or are a huge Bruce Willis fan, this film’s for you! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Atypical

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’m going to place Netflix’s latest original offering ‘Atypical‘ under the microscope.

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The series has been widelyΒ discussed within the autistic community this week, but in case you haven’t heard about it- ‘Atypical‘ is a coming of age series which follows Sam, an eighteen year old boy with high functioning autism as he sets out to find a girlfriend.

You can watch a trailer for the series here:

The series has received mainly positive reviews from critics (Forbes claim it to be the greatest series Netflix has ever made- uh, ‘Daredevil‘ anyone? πŸ˜› ), but some have critiqued the stereotypical nature of the character of Sam.

So what did I make of it?

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Show creator Robia Rashid, who herself has experience of autism in her personal life, conducted a lot of background research and hired autism consultant Michelle Dean to review all scripts and cuts- and in my opinion, it shows!

I found ‘Atypical’ to be a quite enjoyable and endearing series. I particularly enjoyed the coming of age angle, taking us away from the typical child/awkward adult portrayals that we see all too often on screen. It’s refreshing to see autism from the perspective of a teenager on the spectrum, a particularly turbulent time in the life of a change resistant autist (even more turbulent if navigated undiagnosed as in my case).

And guess what- the creators didn’t resort to savant stereotypes! πŸ˜€

Granted, Sam is highly intelligent with an excellent memory, but these traits are subtly infused within the fabric of his personality. I particularly found the acting from leadΒ Keir Gilchrist, who based his portrayal on his experiences with autistic friends, to be quite excellent, especially for an actor of his age.

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However, as excellent an actor as Gilchrist may be, many have criticized the show for casting a neurotypical actor in the main role. On the other hand, show creators did feature actor Anthony Jacques (seen on the right below), who is himself autistic. Alas, while described as a “supporting” character in many reviews of the show, he briefly appears in only two episodes.

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Nevertheless Jacques’ character of Christopher forms a refreshing addition to the cast with his quirky enthusiasm, representing a higher functioning bracket of the spectrum.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about the show was how it focused not just on how autism impacts Sam’s life, but it also gave equal screen time to the impacts of autism within his wider social circle. We see the toll that autism has placed on Sam’s parents and their marriage, the responsibility that Sam’s younger sister burdens herself with and the reactions of friends and others in the community towards Sam.

As much as I personally enjoyed the show however, there were times where Netflix veered towards the stereotypical. For example, I felt that Sam was a little too literal in his thinking/responses:

Zahid (Sam’s friend): “I’m taking you to Poon-city!”

Sam: “That’s not a real place”

We have our moments yes, but not everything is quite that literal.

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I also found issue with how Sam always speaks in measured monotones- a common autistic stereotype. Whilst, yes, this is characteristic of some within the autistic community, it is not for all. My tone of voice for example can be anywhere from high pitched to a deep drawl depending on the mood I’m in (or an opportunistic head cold πŸ˜‰ ). This stereotype crops up time and time again in on screen portrayals and it is really starting to bug me! πŸ˜›

Once again as I watched this show, I felt as though I were seeing yet another carbon copy autistic person dance across my screen. The show talks about neurodiversity, but the character of Sam is, to my eye, far from diverse.

Perhaps Netflix would do well to feature an autistic female lead if the show is renewed for a second season.

All in all, ‘Atypical‘ is a mostly enjoyable affair so check it out if you have a spare 4-5 hours for a weekend binge watch πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen-Mozart and the Whale

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

To mark the end of autism awareness month, today I’d like to tell you about a film that in my opinion, is probably the most realistic representation of autism on screen- the 2005 romantic-comedy-drama film ‘Mozart and the Whale.

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(This film is also called ‘Crazy in Love‘ in some parts of the world)

The film follows the turbulent relationship between Donald (Josh Hartnett) and Isabelle (Radha Mitchell)- two adults with Asperger’s syndrome who meet at an autism support group.

Check out the trailer below:

What makes this film stand out from the crowd is that the film illustrates two very different pictures of AS and two different levels of functionality.

Donald, contrary to the OCD stereotype, lives in a hoarders paradise surrounded by birds (and their droppings…), and works as a taxi driver as he is unable to navigate job interviews to make use of his university degree. Isabelle in contrast lives in a highly organized environment, hairdressing by day and painting by night; maintaining a relatively normal social life and appearing to outsiders as merely eccentric.

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In watching their interactions, a clear difference emerges in their expression of Β AS. In addition to this, the background support groups also provide us with different pictures of autism with no two characters appearing the same.

Autism is unique, and this film remains true to that.

Another key element to this film is that of gender and autism. Other films such as ‘Snow Cake‘, have a tendency to portray women using the male experience of the condition, however, in this film we can see that there is a clear difference between autistic men and women.

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Unlike Donald, Isabelle appears relatively normal to an outsider, albeit eccentric. She performs better socially and in the workplace, and largely appears to be in control. The film also hints at Isabelle’s developed social coping skills when she says:

I can’t keep from shocking people so I make it work for me.

As someone who made great efforts in college to turn qualities that were once perceived as weird into (hopefully) endearing eccentricities, this remark completely resonated with me.

However, like many women with autism, Isabelle struggles with issues of mental health and she is seeing a therapist. This film gives us a true insight into the realities faced by many women living with AS.

This film has divided some critics as to it’s accuracy in it’s portrayal of autism. On the one hand, it has been praised by many critics as one of the truest cinematic representations of autism, however, others have criticized the film for portraying the leads as having savant skills (Donald is mathematical; Isabelle has artistic and musical savant skills).

I know, I sound like a hypocrite as I often give out about this over-representation,

BUT

the characters in ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ are based on a true story!! πŸ˜€

The film is loosely based on the love story of Jerry and Mary Newport, two people with AS who are savants!

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You can read a bit more on their story over on Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/163483.Mozart_and_the_Whale

Fun Fact about the Film:Β The screenplay for ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ was written by Ron Bass- the same screenwriter for ‘Rain Man‘!

This fact is made even more interesting by the fact that ‘Rain Man‘ is often considered inaccurate, while ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ is perceived as the most accurate.

In comparing both films, we can really see a clear change in attitudes towards autism in the intervening 17 years. We move from a dramatic and stereotyped vision of autism to a friendlier, more accurate portrayal of the autistic condition.

If you want to watch a film about autism, this is the one to see.

This film definitely get’s Aoife’s ‘A’ of approval πŸ˜‰

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Aoife

Autism on Screen- Adam

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today we’ll be taking a look at the representation of Asperger’s syndrome in the 2009 (although filmed in 2005) romantic drama film ‘Adam‘ starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne.

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Adam‘ focuses on the relationship between Adam, a man with AS, and Beth, his neurotypical next door neighbour, as they embark on a romantic relationship. The film charts their relationship from unorthodox origins (Adam unwittingly asks Beth if she is aroused one night when struggling to read her emotions) to (**SPOILER ALERT**) strained ending, as both parties endeavor to better understand the other.

Check out the trailer below:

So how does ‘Adam‘ rank in it’s depiction of autism?

Scientifically speaking, ‘Adam‘ presents the audience with many of the classic characteristics of AS, providing insight into the emotional, sensory and social issues which many of us deal with on a daily basis, such as Adam’s struggles with job interviews.

One of the finer details in the film that stood out for me was how Adam separates different foods on his plate so that nothing is touching. This can be seen in the screenshot below:

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I remember reading ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘ by Mark Haddon as a teenager and identifying with how Christopher does not like his foods to be touching as ‘Adam‘ demonstrates here.

For me, certain foods that touch contaminate flavours and textures so I often endeavor to separate them on my plate. It’s a logical thing- I’m not crazy, I swear!!! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Ironically, I never put two and two together about having AS myself! πŸ˜›

The film is flawed however, in that the character of Adam is a highly intelligent electronic engineer with a photographic memory, further perpetuating the rare savant stereotype…

Dear film makers/screenwriters-enough with the savant skills already! It’s been done to death! πŸ˜›

In addition to this, there is one slightly insulting moment in the film wherein Adam is not considered “dating material” in Beth’s social circle. Granted, Beth largely ignores the advice of friends and family to pursue a relationship with Adam, buuuut (* *SPOILER ALERT**) ultimately agrees that they are from two different worlds and cannot make the relationship work.

Indeed, relationships can be hard for us, but that does not mean that we are incapable of making them work (I know several neurodiverse-neurotypical romantic pairings). One of the biggest problems in the relationship between Adam and Beth is that Adam is unable to tell Beth that he loves her. Believing that Adam sees their relationship practically and not emotionally, Beth makes the decision to break up with him as a result.

As previously discussed (Discussion: Love and Romance), saying ‘I love you’ can be quite difficult for an autist, but that does not mean that love isn’t there. I may struggle to say the words to the ones I love, but love them I do.

In watching the film, it’s obvious that Adam loves Beth, he just has a different way of showing her- something that parents, friends and significant others alike should be aware of. We do love you, it’s just hard for us to show it sometimes πŸ™‚

All in all, ‘Adam‘ is a quirky affair that balances both the positives and negatives of life on the spectrum to give a relatively (we’ll let the high IQ/memory slide this time) realistic insight into the autistic experience πŸ™‚

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Aoife

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