Beyond ‘Rain Man’

To mark World Autism Awareness Day, The Jerusalem Post’s film critic shares a personal guide to autism-related movies.

Guy Nattiv’s Israeli drama ‘The Flood.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Guy Nattiv’s Israeli drama ‘The Flood.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Today is World Autism Awareness Day, and Channel 2 is broadcasting a film to mark the day: That’s My Brother by Hagit Ron Rabinovich and Eyal Rubinstein, at 10:30 p.m. It’s a moving look at the siblings of people with autism.
Tomorrow night, Channel 2 will show the season finale of the second season of Yellow Peppers (“Pilpelim Zehubim”), an acclaimed dramatic series about a family on a moshav whose son is diagnosed with autism. Yellow Peppers airs at 10:15 p.m.
As the mother of a son with autism about to turn 18, for me, it’s always autism awareness day, and along with many other autism parents in Israel, I was delighted when Yellow Peppers came out. In the US, there was a parallel development with the show Parenthood, the fifth season of which is being shown on YES Drama, in which one of the children is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
Autism is on the rise around the world.
The Centers for Disease Control in the US released statistics in 2012 that show that 1 in 88 children will be diagnosed with autism, up from about 1 in 2,500 two decades ago. Israeli statistics are similar, at about 1 in 100, according to Alut, the advocacy group for children with autism.
One excellent way to understand the reality behind the statistics is to watch movies on the subject. So here is a guide to the movies about autism, both documentaries and features, that have meant the most to me, and that are the most true to life.
1. The Flood (Mabul) – This 2010 Israeli movie, directed by Guy Nattiv (whose latest film, Magic Men, is currently in theaters) is a look at a very dysfunctional family that is thrown into chaos when their autistic teenage son is sent home after the institution where he has been living closes suddenly. His younger brother, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah, has to cope, with little help from his parents.
It’s a sad but believable film.
2. The Black Balloon – This Australian film has a plot that is similar in some ways to that of The Flood. Written and directed by Elissa Down, who has two brothers with autism, the film is a brilliant portrayal of a young teenage boy who has an older brother with autism. The actors are wonderful, and Toni Collette plays the mother.
This film shows how difficult life with a low-functioning person with autism is, even for the most loving family.
3. Temple Grandin – Claire Danes, currently starring in Homeland, won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance in this HBO biopic. Temple Grandin was severely autistic as a child and went on to become a livestock engineer and an advocate for people with autism.
4. Rain Man – Usually Hollywood gets everything to do with autism wrong, but Rain Man holds up surprisingly well. The film won an Oscar for Best Picture and a Best Actor Oscar for Dustin Hoffman. The character Hoffman portrays is a savant, which only about five percent of people with autism actually are, but the film does a great job showing how someone with autism may be a genius at certain complex tasks but barely able to function in other areas. It also makes it clear how fear can be crippling to people on the autistic spectrum.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird – It may surprise people to find To Kill A Mockingbird on this list, but the 1962 classic adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, starring Gregory Peck as a crusading defense attorney in the South, features a key character who many in the autism community have long thought was on the spectrum – Boo Radley.
Hauntingly played by Robert Duvall, Boo appears in only one scene but is a central presence in the movie. Boo’s withdrawn affect and every fact that is revealed about him indicate that he is a person on the autism spectrum.
6. After Thomas – A bit of a tear-jerker, this British drama about a boy with autism whose life changes when he gets a dog has many wonderful moments, and presents a convincing picture of what it’s like when a child is diagnosed.
7. Her Name is Sabine – French actress Sandine Bonnaire made this documentary about her autistic sister. Her sister was lively and high-functioning as a teenager, but in her twenties was institutionalized for a number of years and came out a silent, obese zombie. Nothing has ever illustrated the devastating effects of institutionalization as starkly as this film.
8. Autism: The Musical – An Emmy-winning documentary about Elaine Hall, the mother of a boy with autism and the founder of the Miracle Project, an unconventional education program for children on the spectrum, who stages a musical with several autistic children.
It’s both fascinating and funny.
9. Autism Every Day – This is a film produced by autism advocates about how difficult it is for families to care for children with autism. You can see a 13-minute version on YouTube and also find links to longer versions of the film there.
10. Turning Thirteen – Dana Idisis’ moving documentary on the preparations for her brother’s bar mitzvah will bring tears to your eyes, but it’s also quite funny.
It’s also a very loving tribute by a sister who hasn’t had an easy life but cares deeply for her brother.