Reviews

A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back To Autism (Sólskinsdrengurinn)

A Mother's Courage finds other ways to look at autism: as Temple Grandin puts it, "If I could snap my fingers and not be autistic, would I? No."


A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism

Director: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
Cast: Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir, Temple Grandin, Soma Mukhopadhyay, Dr. Geraldine Dawson, Kate Winslet (Narrator)
Rated: R
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-09-24 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"I often wonder, what would a totally normal brain be like? It might be really boring." Temple Grandin laughs when she says this. And while her joke works on several levels, the aim it takes at the very concept of "normal" may be its most effective. Grandin, of course, knows something about this concept, having called abnormal for most of her life. Whether or not she's the "most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world," she has long been a terrific liaison between these seemingly separate experiences, the normal and the not.

Grandin makes this much clear as one of the interviewees in A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back To Autism. Premiering on HBO to mark International Autism Awareness Day on 2 April (and re-airing after), Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's documentary follows the efforts of Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir to understand her son's autism. Keli's diagnosis, Margret narrates (voiced by Kate Winslet), has changed the lives of all the family. "We don’t know how much he understands," she says. "His communication is so limited."

As she speaks, the film lays out an ominous horizon -- quite literally, with stormy skies under the credits. Keli exhibits "common characteristics," a series of title cards submits, including social and communication impairments and repetitive behaviors and narrow interests. Keli's head rocks as he walks, his gaze is unfocused, and at last, he appears to wander along a foresty path, his figure shrinking into the back of the frame. "It's an agonizing feeling," Margret says, "Not to be able to hold your child when something's wrong with them. Keli may never be self-reliant or express himself normally."

And there's that word again. It's helpful that Grandin is one of the first people Margret seeks out, as she interviews a number of experts and parents of children with autism, hoping that the film itself may "give some help and understanding to others." As Grandin describes the brain's parts and the different ways connections can be made, she raises important questions regarding social expectations and political judgments, ever framed by needs to fit in and -- this is key -- be understood. But, Grandin observes, not all forms of communication are the same. An autistic person, she says, might not be to talk, "but can learn to read and can learn to type."

This is something of a revelation for Margret, and shapes the film going forward. As she meets with parents who children whose characteristics are wide-ranging and who have learned a range of ways to communicate, you may be thinking of Grandin's observation, that "People get so hung up on the social stuff, they forget the difficulties of sensory stuff," that is, "normal" people who can filter sensory input don't always appreciate the onslaught that troubles those without filters.

In order to express their experience, autistic individuals use a range of means. Some, like Clay Meulemen, can use language socially, yet still presents something of a "puzzle," because not everything he says is clear to those around him. Other autistic kids, like Tito Mukhopadhyay, have learned to use a keyboard. He describes his autism as "total chaos," and tries to screen out stimuli, "by covering his ears, focusing on an object near him, or avoiding eye contact." His mother, Soma, rejected doctors' early diagnoses that her son was "mentally retarded" and needed to be institutionalized. She developed a technique called the Rapid Prompting Method and has since founded the Halo Clinic.

Whatever methods so-called normal people find to communicate with autistics, the film shows that everyone must come to terms with their new future. As one father puts it, he and his wife now "accept that things were not gonna be as we thought they were," and from there, "grasp the concept that you can't fix it." As they set off for a trip to the mall with their multiple autistic sons, Björk can be heard in the background (she and Sigur Rós contributed to the music soundtrack). This combination of sound and images -- at once percussive, propulsive, and strangely lyrical -- offers a window onto the family's daily difficulties and adventures.

If some of the other scoring is less clever (most often, big boomy orchestrations lay on feelings of loneliness or confusion), A Mother's Courage demonstrates repeatedly that communication -- talking back -- is crucial in living with autism, as it shapes every story told here. David Crowe remembers when his son Taylor, then only three, suddenly dropped his spoon and began to yell, ""My mouth won't say the words! My mouth won't say the words!" Panicked, David couldn't understand what was happening any more than his child. "He'd been a perfectly normal child," Crowe recalls, "And over the next six months, all of his language skills essentially evaporated. It is as if your child has been stolen from you."

The narration stages this story as another one of opposites: "Taylor gradually withdrew into the world of autism." But his father finds a way to traverse those seeming borders, to move through time. Now 27, he graduated college and has a job as an animator. He's not "normal," but he is excellent. As Grandin puts it, "If I could snap my fingers and not be autistic, would I? No."

5

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.