A review by Sevara Pan: “There was a cartoon, when I was young called Jungle Book,” recounts Wolf, one of the characters in the film Neurotypical. “Now, at the end, Mowgli goes off with the man, with the fire. And he leaves the jungle. And I remember watching it and crying my eyes out. […] ‘No, don’t leave,’ I howled. ‘Don’t go with the men! Trust me, I know how horrible it is.’ I had been abused and hurt so much by people trying to make me normal. […] Everybody else saw that as a good thing, I saw it as the saddest movie I had ever seen,” divulges Wolf as we see an image of a four-year-old Violet crossing the wooden bridge.
Neurotypical is a first feature documentary by an aspiring American filmmaker Adam Larsen. In short, Neurotypical is about life from the perspective of the autistic people. The film forges three chapters, which symbolically represent an arch of a day. It sets out in the morning with an untarnished innocence of Violet, a young girl of four, who is starting off in life and is guided by her parents with every step she takes in her journey exploring the world with the diagnosis. “I think, she just wants to keep going, keep exploring forever,” says Violet’s father. “We can’t figure it out, you know, we just can’t […]. She is a mystery. That’s like the whole point.” Nicholas is another protagonist of the film. A fourteen-year-old teenager represents the afternoon. He has more freedom because he is not with his parents all the time. His parents help him overcome the roadblocks but mostly he is coming to terms with his identity on his own. He has social challenges and he has to navigate the world of friends and dating. And there is Paula, an adult, who is caring for others and who has truly embraced the diagnosis. She represents the evening. According to Larsen, besides the symbolic meaning, this deftly crafted structure of the film, also helped his editing process.
Through the eyes of a four-year-old Violet happily swinging in her backyard hammock, teenager Nicholas, and middle-aged wife and mother Paula, Neurotypical explores the
broad spectrum of neurodiversity, rendering ‘normal’ people as ‘the other,’ which brings an interesting tension into play. Now, we are ‘the other.’ “I look at neurotypical life and I am sorry but I don’t really want to be one of you […],” one of the autistics confesses. I am not particularly impressed that it is a better way of life. It’s a different way of life and I celebrate the difference […]. But I don’t want to be neurotypical – I am happy being what I am […].”
The film does a marvelous job at pushing back the cliches, eschewing to represent autism solely as a severe debilitating disease that needs a cure – the flat image oftentimes spoonfed by the media. Instead, the documentary unveils different facets of the autistic life. Parents of little Violet weigh the pros and cons of putting their daughter on medication, which might act as a ‘chemical straitjacket’ for the girl. Self-taught Southern old-time fiddler talks about the oddness that often results in a cultural content. Student Maddi discusses the possibility of being involved in romantic relationships being an autistic, “Just because Temple Grandin doesn’t do it, doesn’t mean it never happens,” she says. John and working artist Katie enlighten us on creative adaptations and ways to pick up social cues to ‘pass’ in the ‘normal’ world. “You can actually convince them that you are listening if all you do is just repeat the last three to four words of what they are saying. It works like magic,” John shares with a tad of sarcasm.
Neurotypical is a remarkable film that transpires the human need to belong. It is a lot about trying to fit in once you are at the other end of the spectrum. In order to put the rest at ease, some, like Wolf, create a pseudotypical, a fake typical, thus coming as close to being Joe Normal as possible without losing their identities. “My child is a ‘red’ child in a ‘blue’ world,” a mother of an autistic fifteen-year-old expressed at the online screening of the film on POV, “and my job is to teach him how to exist in the ‘blue’ world but not to make him ‘blue.'”
In quintessence, Neurotypical calls to accept the difference and celebrate diversity. Unconventional ways of thinking is what makes us find the beauty when we fail to see. As one of the film’s subjects expounds, “I realized that there is only one sense, not five, and the one is touch.” When you see, you get light hitting the backs of your eyes. When you hear, sound is hitting your eardrums. And when you taste, you’ve got taste receptors that are engaging in actual molecules. So everything is a form of touch. I decided that a tag game could be way more subtle than it was ever played in grade school. Like if I say ‘tag,’ I just hit your eardrums and you are IT. Or if I write ‘tag’ on a piece of paper and I hold it up and you read it, I just hit the backs of your eyeballs and you are IT. So that made it more fun in my mind. [After all], you don’t tag somebody to make them IT, you ‘tag’ somebody to remind them that they are IT.
USA, 2013, 52 min.