Cinema is a window into worlds we might otherwise never see. Whether depicting the quotidian or the extraordinary, the mundane or the fantastical, it offers the spectator an opportunity to experience the lives of others arguably better than any other medium. Of course, said spectator never truly experiences said lives, but the best cinema is shot through panes of empathy and compassion that bring us emotionally close to that which we cannot be physically close to.

Some of 2020’s best documentaries achieve such emotional proximity with aplomb, transporting the viewer into milieus entirely foreign to most of us. Chen Wei Xi and Wu Hao’s 76 Days placed us inside a Wuhan hospital at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak early last year. Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda gave us the chance to observe life on a farm for a family of pigs, free from (almost) all human interaction. Now, Jerry Rothwell’s The Reason I Jump attempts to provide an insight into a milieu ostensibly familiar to most, yet in significant ways distinctly foreign: the life of an autistic person.

Some documentarians are content merely to observe. Others see fit to editorialize, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not. Rothwell’s approach is the latter – for him and for his fellow contributors on this misguided film, the autistic experience is one that cannot be adequately depicted through simple observation. Instead, they seek to elucidate that which they themselves have only ever observed, save for some rudimentary and highly suspect research. Their research stems from Naoki Higashida’s 2007 book, also titled The Reason I Jump, a work purportedly explaining the perspective of its author, an autistic boy then aged 13. Higashida has nonverbal autism and is claimed to have written the book – which has been criticized for resembling a parent’s romanticized impression of the autistic experience – through a method known as “facilitated communication”, a method widely discredited as pseudoscience by several major authoritative bodies. From this shaky starting point, Rothwell has embarked on a simplistic, patronizing, well-meaning but fundamentally misleading, erroneous and even deceptive expansion on Higashida’s premise.

The Reason I Jump as a movie elucidates nothing more than a few concerned parents and carers’ notions about autism. Its scientific value is negligible; its value as a reliable document of life with autism is nil. There are many on the autistic spectrum who are capable of giving frank, descriptive, integrally credible accounts of such lives – that there may be very few severely affected by their condition does not necessarily preclude a smart, dedicated artist guided by empathy and compassion and informed by valid scientific practice from depicting their lives on screen. After all, no two persons’ experiences with any given condition will be identical, something which is truer still for those on the autistic spectrum – autism and its variant Asperger’s Syndrome are marked by the distinct differences in how they are manifest in each individual and in how they affect each individual. Focusing on a small few individuals could only ever yield an accurate depiction of their own experiences, yet what Rothwell attempts here is to universalize his dubious, harmful pronouncements. He presents the subjective opinions of a few non-autistic people won over by comforting pseudoscientific platitudes as profound, objective declarations of truth.

That Rothwell’s approach is dangerous ought to go without saying, though it doesn’t – it’s only in saying as much that the extent of this film’s influence might be curtailed. In pretty imagery and with the engaging presence of author David Mitchell (who translated the book with his wife) as its ideological anchor, The Reason I Jump tellingly barely even touches upon any scientific content, instead presenting its ideas as uplifting and accessible art cinema for the masses. Indeed, that’s precisely who this film is for, and whom it’s by: the masses of people who’ll never know what it’s actually like to live with autism. This reviewer, however, does know what that’s like, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome 15 years ago. This reviewer can attest to things The Reason I Jump actively refutes: that autism is not a problem to be overcame but a simple difference to be accommodated; that life with autism is as unknowable to someone not on the spectrum as anyone’s interior life is to anyone else, not some mystifying headspace full of petty whims, random traumas and sporadic bursts of magical wonder; that we neither need nor want others to tell our stories, certainly not when their mission is a self-serving one. This film is not a window onto anything other than a condescending appraisal of a world its appraiser neither understands nor cares to try to understand.

Summary
A patronizing, integrally false depiction of life with autism, guided by pseudoscience and dressed up in unearned uplift. Arthouse ableism that makes the viewer less informed than they were going in.
26 %
Just Unreasonable
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