I had my guard up this week when I sat down with Cat Jameson and her husband, Steve, to watch The United States of Autism. Let's face it, there are a lot of autism movies, and a lot more in the pipeline. I'm interested in causation, not awareness, and I don't view autism as something we just need to get up close and personal with and all shall be well. And really, how good can something be that sprang to life thanks in part to a $50,000 grant from Pepsi?
My guard started dropping partway through the amazing opening credit sequence. I leaned over to Cat and whispered, "That's $50,000 worth of animation right there."
Well, it could have been, but as I learned later, the director and executive producer, Richard Everts, sat down and taught himself to do it after an a professional wanted a couple of thousand dollars for just the first few seconds. I learned that from Richard's wife, Sugey Cruz-Everts, also an executive producer, who attended the screening in Arlington, Va.
But on to the film itself. The gimmick is some guy taking reluctant leave of his wife and son and running around the country for 40 days, dropping in on lots of families with autism and a few experts, interacting, popping questions, shaking hands, hugging, and heading on down the road. At one level, it's like a bunch of Love It or List It episodes on HGTV jammed together: Host and (unseen) camera crew arrive at the door, family greets them, they go inside and chitchat for a few seconds about their difficult circumstances (two kids in one bedroom, etc., if we're talking HGTV). Once over lightly, but from a darker place.
Well, it could have been, if not for the guy they chose to do all that running around -- Everts himself. His interactions with the families don't have to be long and wordy because they are honest, human, and beautifully constructed -- and because Everts avoids the traps of this kind of filmmaking -- insipid narration, icky empathy, lingering fadeouts, tears for the sake of tears.
What you get instead are vivid glimpses of high-functioning kids and adults, full-syndrome kids who do or don't respond to various treatments, siblings who are coping or not (the one who really, really wants her sister to stop talking about "dictators" all the time is priceless), tales of bullying and acceptance and all the rest (including the stunning comment from a Muslim mom that a bystander compared her son to a terrorist during a meltdown).
You have to admire the sheer energy and intelligence that shines through -- not just the geographic pace, but the smart decision to whack the daylights out of just about every interview and leave the nubbin, whether it's two or three minutes or two or three sentences.
At one point, Everts arrives in New York City to interview Ezra Susser of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Setting up the interview, driving into New York, getting into the building, setting up the camera, making smalltalk, doing the interview, then doing it all in reverse ... that's a lot of work (and money) for only a minute or so of film.
But it's quite a minute. Here is a guy with gravitas saying that you might be able to discount half of the increase in autism due to better diagnosis, etc., but you're left with a fivefold increase. Fivefold! I might pick at that number, but it's a great thing to get on film and a great person to get it from. You don't have to go on about the epidemic after that; you just know that the people you're meeting in this film had no comparison just a couple of decades ago. Enough said, so to speak.
For me, the best scenes in the movie are Everts' interactions with the kids and their sibs: sword-fighting with them in the living room -- I can hear my mother yell, you could put your eye out with that thing! -- spraying a delighted boy with a garden hose in the driveway, etc. Yes, it's set up to happen, but it comes across as fun, not fake.
Some of the kids say wise things into his camera, but some are just, well, kids. There's one little boy trying to say what his sibling's autism means for him. "It's like well, it's like, it's like," says the boy, about 10 times. He's just too young to be able to say anything, and the way Everts shakes with laughter is, to me, the best moment in the movie. Autism isn't funny, but life still is.
Everts' appreciation for these families is a mirror of his own life back home in Pennsylvania with Sugey and their severely affected 14-year-old, Tommy. We see an evolution in Everts' approach to his son -- aided by a remarkable family reunion -- that is subtle and unforced but deeply moving.
Oh, and about causation? There was enough for me. Lin Wessels: "I believe Sam's autism was caused by the mercury in vaccines." Thank you, Ma'am! (And thanks for wearing the Age of Autism T-shirt -- so did another parent.) Tim Welsh talks about vaccines, and so does Dan Burton. (Everts went to Washington because he had appointments to see several movers and shakers, all of whom canceled. So let's not hear any whining from the "experts" about who he talked to and who he didn't.)
Sugey said afterwards that more and more screenings are being set up -- the one we went to was sold out, and I can see why. Word of mouth on this movie must be great. She also talked about getting Oscar consideration -- which requires being in a theater for a week each in New York and Los Angeles. Regardless of what happens, I think we'll be hearing -- and seeing -- more from the Everts.
I for one can't wait.
Temple Grandin needs to stick to her subject matter expertise. "And Dr. Grandin," asked S.E. Cupp on MSNBC this week, "why are you seeing such a dramatic rise in the number of autism cases? Have we gotten better at diagnosing or are we overdiagnosing?" (That's a clown question, bro!)
Here is Grandin's answer: "Well I think it's because the definition of autism over the decade has expanded. In my book The Autistic Brain, the whole history of a diagnostic manual is, go through it. Each decade or so they keep changing it, and they broadened it, where in the DSM-IV you no longer had to have speech delay, where now they're kind of tightening it up a bit.
"So some of it is just increased diagnosis. I can think of kids I went to college with that I know were on the spectrum. I have worked with people in meat plants that I know are on the spectrum but they run the maintenance shop. Now why is an old gray-hair like me got the job? Because as a little kid he was taught manners, he was taught social skills."
I'm not exactly clear on the plain prose sense of some of that -- I think she means that she ended up with a PhD rather than as a maintenance shop supervisor in a meat plant because her parents taught her manners and social skills.
But lending her gravitas to "increased diagnosis" as an explanation of the 1 in 50 rate that was flashing on the screen at the same time is incorrect and unfortunate.
I've got a movie she ought to see.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.