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Two Movies Let Us Enter Autism's World

These two excellent films on DVD deal with the trials of autism and Asperger's, respectively. It's rare insight.

Recently, I watched two fantastic films on DVD that have characters with  different facets of special needs--autism, to be specific.

The Black Balloon is a touching, engaging Australian drama about a family with two teenage sons, one of whom is autistic. At the start of the film, the mother is pregnant again, trying her best to manage the two boys she already has, plus a husband and a household.

The autistic son, Charlie, naturally takes up a great deal of both parents’ time as well as the time and attention of the other son, Thomas. When Thomas brings a girlfriend home for dinner, things do not go exactly as planned, as with most things when the ever-unpredictable but sweet Charlie is around.

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All of the performances in this film are stellar, especially the two boys. Sometimes, acting performances of characters with special needs go too over the top or are too unrealistic. Here, Charlie is a non-verbal, highly inquisitive young man who likes structure and regiment, but is not seen as a victim or a character in need of sympathy from the audience.

He is just a teenage boy. He is happy in his own world with his own games. And the relationship between the two brothers is also not sugarcoated at all. There even is a very emotional scene when the brothers fight; it’s tough to watch since they are so close. Actress Toni Collette, as the mother, shines here with another riveting, inspiring performance, proving she is one of few actresses who can do both comedy (Showtime’s The United States of Tara) and drama quite seamlessly.  The strong performances and convincing script are what makes this film so appealing. No cardboard characters here! 

Adam is a strong film that is tough to watch. I continuously felt sorry for the main character, Adam, who has Asperger's Syndrome. But, feeling sorry for Adam is part of the story...the script is written so that we do feel bad for him.

The film opens with his father passing away.  He now lives alone, which is new territory for Adam. Asperger's prevents him from living a so-called normal life...he has few, if any, friends and he lives his life through habits he knows.

When he meets a new neighbor, Beth, his insulated world threatens to either unravel or expand to include her. A touching, sweet film, Adam is part love story and part drama, but no matter which part you prefer, you will admire the strong performances here by both Hugh Dancy, who plays Adam, and Rose Byrne as Beth.

Dancy's Adam has more of an edge than some other special-needs characters of late (Sean Penn in I Am Sam and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio). Adam is a hard person to get to know, be involved with, and especially to love and I feel Dancy conveys that difficulty to the audience through his stellar performance. Over-all, it is worth all of the uncomfortability for this one...it's a great film.

The Black Balloon: 2008, 97 minutes, PG-13, directed by Elissa Down, starring Toni Collette, Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Erik Thomson, and Gemma Ward.

Adam: 2009, 99 minutes, PG-13, directed by Max Mayer, starring Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving.

The Niles Public Library District owns these titles on DVD.

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