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The Tic Code

Director: Gary Winick
Cast: Gregory Hines, Polly Draper, Christopher George Marquette, Desmond Robertson, Tony Shaloub, Bill Nunn, Carol Kane

(Lions Gate; 2000)

Weird and Can


hich would you rather be, normal and can’t play the piano, or weird and can?” This is the kind of impossible-choice question that 12-year-old Miles (Christopher George Marquette) likes to ask his mother. In response, Laura (Polly Draper) sighs. There’s only one conceivable answer, but it’s not easy or obvious. She says, honestly, that she’d rather be weird and be able to play the piano, like her son, who is, after all, a jazz prodigy. She loves Miles, of course, and appreciates his sensitivity and sense of humor in ways that someone on the outside — say, the kids at school — do not. Most importantly, she loves him with, and not despite, the other thing that makes Miles feel “weird,” his Tourette’s Syndrome.

When you hear that Miles has Tourette’s, an inherited neurological disorder characterized by repeated, involuntary body movements (tics) and vocal sounds, you might imagine that the movie is about his courageous struggle or maybe his triumphant musicianship. But The Tic Code, written by Draper (best known for her work on the TV series, thirtysomething) and based in part on experiences with her husband, jazz keyboardist Michael Wolff (the former music director for the Arsenio show, who has Tourette’s), is mostly less grand than that. While it does fall into disease-of-the-week-ish triteness and bumble into a trumped-up climax, The Tic Code also manages, during its gentler moments, to display a refreshingly complex relationship between mother and son.

What makes the film engaging are the performances (in particular young Marquette’s), appealing secondary characters (especially, Miles’ best friend Todd, played by Desmond Robertson), and occasional interventions into its soap operatic formula. One of these is the carefully delineated relationship between Laura and Miles, understandably close, since her ex-husband and Miles’ father (James McCaffery) left them years ago. He now has a new wife and a successful career as a jazz musician that takes him to places like Budapest. Dad’s brief appearance in the film — he meets Miles at the airport during a layover — is enough to make you hate him. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the boy’s twitching, and keeps wishing it away out loud, as if it’s something Miles must become “responsible” enough to handle. The father acts, in other words, as if the disorder is a neurotic or even a rebellious behavior, or more precisely, that it’s all about him, dad. He’s not only unsupportive, but tactless and selfish to boot.

This scene underlines the fact that Laura is the film’s incontrovertible hero, generously and stubbornly devoted to help Miles to feel just a little less weird. She arranges to get him in to the Village Vanguard during the day, when he’s able to jam with some of the musicians, and she tracks down saxophonist Tyrone Pike (Gregory Hines), who also happens to have Tourette’s. Tyrone brings welcome new dimensions to the mother-son relationship, which shifts to accommodate not only his mentoring of Miles, but also his evolving romance with Laura. Both of these relationships are complicated by the fact that Tyrone doesn’t want to talk about his own struggle with Tourette’s: he doesn’t even want to say that he has the disorder. For Miles, he can be strong: he defends him to a bullying classmate (Robert Iler) by saying that Miles and Tyrone share a special “tic code.” But Tyrone is plainly mortified by his own “weird” behaviors and would rather not mention them. And wouldn’t you know, he and Miles have lots they can learn from one another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he’s based on a real person, Tyrone is the primary vehicle for the film’s more provocative insights. He’s a cool cat jazz artist — admired by his peers and the kids — but he’s also sometimes insecure and angry, willfully blind to his and Miles’ “differences” from the other guys, who don’t understand or sympathize because they don’t have to: if they aren’t precisely “bullies” on the level of Miles’ schoolmate or his father, they are carelessly cruel. Tyrone, by contrast, is a thoughtful father-figure, but he remains reticent on the issue that clearly looms between him and Miles. With Laura, he’s a gentle and generous lover, but also inclined to anxiety and diffidence. In another movie, any of these characteristics might be attributed to Tyrone’s lifetime of dealing with racism. But here “the racial thing,” as Tyrone calls it, just doesn’t enter into the conversation, except when he’s looking for a way out of talking about Tourette’s. Tyrone uses it an excuse when Miles asks him why he’s stopped seeing Laura (“We’re too different, it’s a cultural thing”), but otherwise, no one seems too concerned. At the same time, however, no one except Miles has much interaction with people outside this neat nuclear-unit-to-be, so just how they might deal with an “outside” world (or vice versa) conveniently remains a non-issue.

Still, there’s a way to read the movie’s unblinking focus on Tourette’s as a strategy, one which is both nervy and encouraging. Here the term “cultural thing” takes on a range of meanings, including Laura’s surprise that her jazz musician boyfriend would know about Horowitz’s piano playing style: “What, baby?” he retorts, “I went to Juilliard, I know my shit” Or more pointedly, a sticky truth emerges during a small, knotty moment between mother and son, a moment that’s almost lost amid the rest of the film’s emotional hubbub. Miles is excited that one of the jazz players have called him “a white cat who plays like a brother,” and in telling Laura about it, he starts mimicking his black mentors’ speech patterns, including the word “motherfucker.” When, alarmed at his language, she tells him not to “imitate people,” Miles points out she never objects when he does his version of “Indian” pidgin English (a routine resembling Apu on The Simpsons, which we’ve seen Miles do a few times already, and always to his mother’s delighted laughter). Though Laura protests that he doesn’t swear when he does “Gandhi-man,” the scene — short, taut — is uncomfortable enough to make its point: prejudice is a function of ignorance and self-absorption, willful or not.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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