gilbert grape

Happy Autism Awareness Week! One of my good, and college-degreed, friends recently told me that she learned almost everything she knew about autism from Rain Man, the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. I wasn’t offended by this for two reasons. One, Rain Man, the odd-duck buddy-movie conflation of two generations of Hollywood mushy-liberal intentions that both won the Best Picture Oscar and became 1988’s highest-earning Hollywood film, holds up. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rain Man is that Raymond, the Hoffman character, doesn’t change. I still carry around that lesson when people proudly tell me that kids are making friends with my autistic child.

Two, so much of my life revolves around the unlikely power of cinema. Even in our social media-driven world, the knowledge-shaping power of a fictional movie remains undimmed. Or as Ken Jennings said when they asked him his secret to winning so much at Jeopardy!, “You can learn a lot by watching movies.” The following list, then, shouldn’t be considered the Capital-Ts Top Ten Films About Autism (that list, unlike this one, would probably include some documentaries), but rather ten films for anyone who, like my friend, would like to broaden their knowledge base about autism beyond Rain Man. In alphabetical order:

The Black Balloon (2008) An emotional favorite for my wife and me. We wonder if we may someday be living its story of a young autistic adult who smears his feces all over the walls and his younger, teenage, neuro-typical brother who feels trapped between wanting to help and wanting to leave. Toni Collette does her usual amazing work as the mother, and I loved the Australian specificity of this film’s tenderly drawn situations. Heart-rending and touching in all the best ways.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) This one got victimized by snarky bloggers who felt that it over-performed somewhat to receive an Oscar nomination, and it’s neither perfect nor strictly about autism – we don’t actually know that the 9-year-old protagonist (closer to 11 in the movie) is autistic. Yet it seems to comfort many in the autism community who see something familiar in the highly empathic, often tangent-exploring boy. As a post-9/11 New York parable, it doesn’t fire on all cylinders, but it’s still worth letting Oskar Schell touch your heart.

I Am Sam (1998) This film is more notorious than it is well-liked – notorious for Sean Penn jumping on the playing-disabled bandwagon, for starting Dakota Fanning’s career, for inspiring dialogue in Tropic Thunder (2008) like “you never go full retard.” Somehow, even though you know Penn is Penn, he breaks through the clutter with an emotionally wrenching performance that deserves to sit next to Rain Man on the shelf of what-happens-to-these-people-when-they’re-over-30? Thought-provoking and endearing, if ham-handed in a few places.

Little Man Tate (1991) The “boy genius” at the center of this story may or may not be formally on the spectrum, but so much of the story feels familiar to caregivers: the isolation, the mom (played by Jodie Foster) with a special-needs child having to work twice as hard just to give him a normal life, the kid’s nightmares of people seeing him as a freak. Frankly, the story around the film is as comforting as the story on the screen – I love knowing that Jodie Foster chose this difficult project as her directorial debut. In the wake of a childhood where she was onscreen at the age of 3, playing a hooker at 12 (Taxi Driver), and blamed for a Presidential assassination at 16, Foster made this poignant reminder of how we have to safeguard not just children, but childhoods.

My Name is Khan (2010) If you haven’t yet jumped on the Shah Rukh Khan bandwagon, you could do worse than starting here. Khan is probably the biggest star in the world (he’s worth about $500 million), thanks to his 80 Bollywood films, his Muslim-Hindu heritage, his acting, and his washboard abs, but he actually took a two-year hiatus only to return and smash box-office records with this USA-set story of a suspected terrorist who has Asperger’s. Roughly as sentimental and manipulative as that other post-9/11 story, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, this still packs a punch for Americans who don’t always see what’s right in front of them.

The Other Sister (1999) When Juliette Lewis dies, they will talk about Cape Fear (1991) and this film, so you may as well do yourself a favor and see it now to beat the rush. There have been other films, especially made-for-TV films, about people on the spectrum adjusting to life at college, but this one hits all the notes perfectly, perhaps partly because of the Amadeus-like lens of jealousy-as-motivator – the title refers to the lead character’s resentment of her “perfect,” neurotypical sister. Doesn’t sugarcoat fears about the unique dangers faced by young women afflicted with autism; doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence; outstanding.

Real Genius (1985) Yes, Real Genius. This movie is chock-a-block with negative female stereotypes that we know from the 1980s, but when the nerdy boys do finally break into the “hot chick” party, our young protagonist (not Val Kilmer, but Gabriel Jarret, the real lead) realizes that he in fact loves the loud, weird, misfit woman, Jordan, played by Michelle Meyrink, whose mind is never really on the scene as her vocalized thoughts appear to move a million miles a minute. Though Jordan is only a supporting character, her scenes evolve into a richly sympathetic view of someone who today would clearly be placed on the spectrum.

The Social Network (2010) Mark Zuckerberg may never have been formally diagnosed as “sick,” but that doesn’t mean he’s not sick, sick, sick of hearing himself called “borderline Asperger’s.” Yet Zuckerberg has been wise not to publicly repudiate a nation’s worth of armchair analyses, because he indirectly gives hope to millions of spectrum families as they say “well, you never know, Mark Zuckerberg…” David Fincher’s movie about Facebook is alive to these nuances, and it pushes right up against the glass of making Zuckerberg the villain of his own movie, which makes the film all the more 1) rewatchable 2) useful for the autism community.

Temple Grandin (2010) Can’t leave this off the list. Not a documentary, this is instead a terrific biopic. I still cry when I think about how the film presents her graduation from college, as she says that she’s only recently come to realize how much help she’s had. In many ways, this is the most formally daring film on the list; that is, director Mick Jackson actually attempts to visualize Grandin’s thought process, and that’s heartening to witness. Claire Danes is astonishing as Grandin, who in real life has never claimed to be any kind of hero, but…this movie bears witness to the power of movies. We need her filmed story and herself as some kind of example of potential, and she never lets us down.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) No one ever forgets the first time they saw this film (for me it was at the Clay Theater in San Francisco), because no one expects Lasse Hallstrom’s film to be as powerful as it is. Johnny Depp, back when his career was at peak form, plays a guy who can’t leave his tiny Midwestern town because of his autistic brother, brilliantly brought to harrowing life by Leonardo DiCaprio. If you only know DiCaprio from Titanic and afterward, this film will change everything about what you think he can do, and in the process change how you see people afflicted with autism.