Autism in Film
For many years, if you wanted to rent a movie about autism, you had only one choice: Rain Man. Although it never hurts to revisit such a classic, in recent years there has been a virtual explosion of movies featuring autistic characters very different from Rain Man’s savant.
The most recent and critically acclaimed of these films, The Black Balloon (NeoClassics Films, 2008), is a story of two teenage brothers, one of whom is severely autistic. Both film critics and autism advocates herald the Australian film’s realistic portrayal of the disorder. Elissa Down, who wrote and directed the movie, grew up with two autistic brothers and no doubt drew on her own experiences when creating the characters and dialogue. (The Black Balloon is available on DVD in Australia and will be released in the U.S. later this year.)
In 2006’s Snow Cake (IFC), Sigourney Weaver plays an independent autistic woman who helps a guilt-ridden stranger, played by Alan Rickman, come to terms with his issues about love and death. The film received mixed reviews, but Weaver’s performance was praised by many in the autistic community.
Mozart and the Whale (Sony Pictures, 2005) is a more light-hearted film about a romance between two young adults who have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism marked by high IQ and social difficulties. The film, starring Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell, is based on the book of the same title, which chronicles the relationship highs and lows of real-life couple Jerry and Mary Newport.
The next few years promise more autism-related movies, including both documentaries and feature films. There are even reports of a biopic of Temple Grandin, the autistic veterinary researcher made famous by Oliver Sacks in his book An Anthropologist on Mars (Knopf, 1995), with Claire Danes in the title role—so stay tuned.