Every year, I pay my own money to see the Oscar-nominated live-action shorts; it always makes for a fine afternoon in a theater. Never do I expect the short films to shine a light on my situation with Dar. This year, I got one-two sucker-punched. In a good way.
Spoilers. Are you really going to see these short films? Got your Shorts.TV account all set up? Okay, in that case, don’t keep reading. Everyone else, keep going.
The first film on this year’s shorts program was called Dekalb Elementary, about a narrowly averted school shooting. Coming mere days after the news from Parkland, Florida, you could feel the tension in the theater. I’ll guess that they were watching for similarities and differences. I was watching for something slightly different, namely what the news calls “the ongoing stigmatizing of mental illness.” No, I don’t think Dar is the sort of autistic person who goes on to shoot a school. But yes, I am aware of the stereotypes. Yes, I am aware of people flinching when they hear about Dar for the first time. Yes, I am aware that one of the main reasons Dar’s district won’t pay to put him in a non-public school is that he’s not violent enough! Ah, the irony. But yes, I think that caricatures of mentally ill people as violent are, generally, harmful to people like my child.
So while everyone watched with clenched teeth, mine were extra-clenched. And…the movie skirted the issue, threaded the needle. You know how “Sofia the First” is Disney’s first Latina princess but if you ask Disney they’re like, oh no we never meant it that way? That’s a little like the shooter in the Dekalb movie. He has signs of what a psychiatrist would diagnose as mental illness, but he just barely maintains enough composure to remain in the realm of the neurotypical. The film is based on true events, and the filmmakers might have strolled into a legal minefield if they had leaned strongly one way or the other. So I get the ambivalence. I’m less convinced that the movie needed to have ended as ambivalently as it did. I suppose the admin who talked him down is a hero, and that’s great, but the tone of the film’s last minutes felt more like a slowing fizzle than the melodramatic sizzle that it could have been.
In terms of the autistic community, Dekalb Elementary is neither the stereotype-reinforcer nor the stereotype-repudiator that it might have been. I’ll have to call it a wash, a push, a sister-kiss.
If Dekalb Elementary wins the Oscar, I am sad to say that it will be because of the Parkland school shooting (during the heart of the Oscar voting period) and the desire to make a statement. Even though I probably agree with that statement, as well as whatever statement the filmmakers may make from the stage, I’ll likely feel that a better film could have won.
One of those films was the program’s second film, which is the only other short film I’ll discuss today, The Silent Child. Wow, I kind of loved it. And it disturbed me. It spoke to an aspect of the autism experience which you very, very rarely see discussed in the media or in blogs, including this one.
The Silent Child is about Libby, a perhaps-eight-year-old deaf girl with a new home aide who begins to teach her sign language. Libby’s mother is certain that Libby can read lips, but (exactly) one shot in the movie belies her belief; it’s as though our viewer TV is on mute as Libby watches her family speak raucously to each other at the dinner table. Indeed, the family, which consists of a working man, a non-working wife, and two teenage kids, seems to have a full life without Libby. None of them play with her. Yet she thrives with the new aide, Joanne, and Joanne teaches Libby all sorts of new words. One problem is that Libby’s mother frowns at the suggestion that she or the rest of the family should learn sign language. At the dinner table, without Joanne around, she makes the sign for orange, and Libby’s mother says, “what does she want? Television?”
We see the family’s two new Mercedes parked in the driveway outside – not too shabby for a family in England. Libby’s mother tends to welcome Joanne with elaborate excuses for why she’ll again have to be gone all day. She talks about her teenage kids’ important extracurricular activities. At one point, Libby’s grandmother asks Joanne what Libby could possibly do as an adult, and Joanne replies that Libby could do absolutely anything she wants. The old woman is surprised; she clearly sees this silent child as a lost cause. Libby’s mother tells Joanne that the school won’t support sign language, and Joanne insists that even though parents must sometimes fight, the proper support is there if you fight for it. Essentially Libby’s family sees her as a nuisance. Eventually Libby’s mother fires Joanne, explaining that she’s putting her silent child in a new school. There, we see Libby sitting sadly with all the hearing-enabled kids. She is expected, but unable, to read their lips. On the playground, she manages to glimpse Joanne on the other side of the gate, looking longingly at her. Libby signs “I love you.” Joanne signs “I love you.” Credits.
No, we’re not that family. But…the fear of becoming that family is always lurking. I may go weeks without consciously thinking about it. But seeing that fear in full color imagery on a twenty-foot-high canvas was…wow. That’s my horror movie. That’s my Freddie Kreuger in the bushes. That’s my bone-chilling nightmare: letting down Dar that way.
I am not, repeat NOT, looking for anyone to reply to this blog post with any kind of reassurance of what a great guy I am. Oh heck no. It’s not about that. It’s about the very vivid reminder that kids like Dar (and yes, I know Dar isn’t deaf, but I saw a LOT of situational similarities) come to be seen as nuisances. Life defaults to easier, and easier is to leave them alone.
I hate that. And I love how on-point The Silent Child was. I hope it wins the Oscar for Live Action Short.