When Hollywood Gets Things Right! is a new Culture Pages series where we highlight titles that experts say shattered stereotypes, made nuanced observations, and otherwise did not insult entire peoples and populations. At a time when the industry continues to disappoint audiences with dubious representation or casting decisions, this series will celebrate causes for optimism, comfort, and some commendable alternative viewing options.
With so few movies about autism hitting theaters these days, the new Ben Affleck vehicle—about Christian, a brilliant accountant and occasional assassin who is on the spectrum—represents a refreshing alternative to usual action fare. But does it also contain the irresponsible suggestion that the developmental disorder can be linked to violence?
That’s a tough question, and ever since director Gavin O’Connor’s film The Accountant was released last week, autism advocates and culture journalists have argued both positions. Some, like Adam Adonis at MoviePilot and Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post, say that Christian’s childhood is what made him a vigilante—not simply his disorder; others say the movie uses autism merely as a plot device to explain—erroneously—how Affleck can remain stonefaced while shooting adversaries in the head (it’s a myth that autistic people do not experience empathy). “The conclusion you draw from it is that autism is what helped him and others like him to become superhuman killing machines,” Sean Hutchinson writes in Inverse, echoing similar critiques published by The Establishment and Vox.
It’s no wonder that disability advocates are concerned. Only 2.4 percent of characters in 2015’s 100 highest-grossing movies had a disability; according to Film Portrayals of People With Disabilities Database at The Iris Center at Vanderbilt University, just 38 films feature representations of characters on the autism spectrum. With so few representations at the movies—and, as the Iris Center notes, even fewer accurate or non-stereotypical ones—O’Connor’s blockbuster is a rare example of a film with mass appeal and an autistic protagonist with a rich backstory.
That’s a responsibility that O’Connor hasn’t taken lightly—he and Affleck met with autism experts during production, and screened the film for advocacy organization Autism Speaks (an organization that, it’s worth noting, the autistic community has recently expressed mixed feelings about over Twitter) once it was completed. The director expected blowback anyway: “Someone is going to take issue with it. It’s just the way of the world now with social media and the Internet,” he told the Los Angeles Times in early October.
To inform those Internet-centric conversations, and to offer readers alternative non-violent viewing options this fall, we turned to Suzanne Potts, the executive director of the Autism Society of Central Texas and the mother of a 13-year-old autistic son. Her organization offers screenings of what it calls “sensory-friendly” films, and earlier this month held its first-ever Autism Film Festival at an Alamo Drafthouse theater. Potts, who had not seen The Accountant when we spoke last week, offered her picks for the best recent films that foreground autistic characters and subjects. Noting that not many fiction films portray autism particularly well, Potts shared a list that spans both feature and documentary formats; her picks are available to view on streaming platforms.
What It Is: The 1988 family drama Rain Man certainly isn’t a blameless depiction of a character with autism; critics have argued that the Dustin Hoffman character’s salient “savant” traits—autistic individuals who have extraordinary abilities and compose an estimated 10 percent of those with the disorder—suggested that all autistic individuals have superhuman cognitive abilities. But as the top-grossing movie of 1988, Barry Levinson’s film, which also won four Oscars, was the first blockbuster to feature an autistic character for general audiences. Moreover, Levinson and Hoffman consulted the world’s leading expert on autistic savants, Dr. Darold Treffert, for the portrayal—who has since said the film “did more to bring autism and savant syndrome to the public attention than any other public-education effort had done up until then.”
Why You Need to See It: “The film showed [the neurotypical character Charlie’s] ability to connect with his brother, even though it looked a little bit different than perhaps other sibling relationships. And [Raymond’s] capacity to learn and grow: From an autism perspective, we’re always trying to show that people with autism grow up to be adults with autism and that they continue to make positive growth throughout their lifespan. It was the first time I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’d never seen this on the screen.’”
What It Is: When the now-famous autistic animal science professor Temple Grandin was growing up in the 1950s, autism research was still in its infancy. As HBO’s 2010 Emmy Award-winning biopic starring Claire Danes shows, Grandin’s public disclosure of her life in speeches and her 1996 book Thinking in Pictures helped to bring greater public awareness to the disorder—and show that people with it can succeed professionally and intellectually in part because they “think different,” as Grandin herself puts it.
Why You Need to See It: “Claire Danes was remarkable; she was really able to portray Temple Grandin’s real mannerisms, her cadence, her stimmings. Also, I think what’s nice about the Temple Grandin movie is that it depicts a woman, and we don’t often see examples of women with autism [onscreen]. While boys are typically four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism, it presents sometimes differently with girls.”
What It Is: Owen Suskind’s connection to The Lion King runs deeper than most—memorizing lines from it and other Disney animated moved helped this ’90s kid, who has regressive autism and was speechless until age three, learn how to speak. This year’s documentary Life, Animated, based off of a book by Suskind’s father, traces the now 23-year-old Owen’s life from his family’s discovery of this unique treatment to crucial transitional moments in any life, but especially for autistic adults—including high school graduation and moving away from home.
Why You Need to See It: “Life with autism—like most lives—can be difficult in ways that you hadn’t anticipated, and it can beautiful in ways that you hadn’t anticipated. Owen gets a job which, for you and me, might be like, OK. But for our kiddos to get and retain jobs is overwhelming — 80 percent of people with autism are unemployed or under-employed [according to some studies]. So to see him successfully get a job—I don’t want to get all weepy—is such an awesome thing; he’s living life like you and I.”
“The Family Next Door”
What It Is: Film director Barry Reese hatched the idea for this 2014 documentary when he first saw a family friend’s autistic son gets ready for his day as he usually does—by walking in circles. The resulting film documents the day-to-day life of that child’s family, the Pittsburgh-based Lunds, who have two autistic sons, one high-functioning and one non-verbal, and two neurotypical daughters. “The number-one aim really was to create more awareness about the emotions surrounding autism,” Reese, who filmed the Lunds for 16 months, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014.
Why You Need to See It: “The sibling dynamic is showcased really well: The Lunds have two sisters that have very different approaches to the diagnosis, and you see them each grappling with how to be a sibling in the situation. Then, from the parental perspective, the film shows that, though some [experts] say Early Childhood Intervention is critical, sometimes even with that treatment, and with every resource available to you [as the Lunds have], you still don’t have the outcome that you anticipate. We just showed that one; the trailer makes me cry.”
“Autism in Love”
What It Is: Are autistic people capable of feeling empathy? In agreement with the social-science research, this 2015 PBS documentary pushed against the erroneous stereotype of autistic people as cold and uncaring through three separate but intertwined tales of autistic couples in romantic relationships. With storylines that focus on heartbreak, caretaking, and the hard work that goes into making a marriage work, Autism in Love highlights some familiar themes. “The main gist of the film is that they’re just like you and me,” Potts says.
Why You Need to See It: “As a parent, it gave me such hope to see adults with autism in loving, thriving relationships. You hear the word ‘atypical’ so much as a parent, so to see ‘typical’ behavior is heartwarming.