by Daniel Engelke
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It seemed like the world was against me seeing Neurotypical. It had been a blistering hot day only to be followed by an equally heated evening. As I was walking to the outdoor screening, rain started to come down in torrents. I headed to the high school where the film was showing in case of rain. Despite my dripping wet clothes and hard wooden chair, I was taken away by Neurotypical within the first five minutes.
Neurotypical is a documentary about autism from the perspective of autistics. The title comes from the term autistics use to describe people without autism. The film centers on three characters in pivotal times of their lives: Three-year old Violet, teenager Nicholas, and recently diagnosed mid-life Paula. Presenting the stories without pity or a Ripley’s oddity curiosity, Neurotypical’s simple presentation is its strongest attribute.
Outside of the three main characters, the film is sprinkled with other side characters. What works so well in these smaller interviews is their wide appeal. All autistic, the stories told in these interviews range from absolutely hysterical to emotionally moving and introspective. In one of the best segments of the film, an autistic F.B.I. employee questions why he would want to be neurotypical.
“I like who I am. I like the way I see the world. I don’t come up to you on the street and ask you to change your life because it isn’t the same as mine. I see nothing wrong with who I am.”
Usually, with first time directors, you see glimpses of greatness surrounded by mediocrity, but newcomer Adam Larsen transcends this pitfall. With well-crafted interviews and an eye for dramatic elements, Larsen has a knack for honest storytelling. The best example of this is present in Paula’s story.
Recently learning of her autism, the middle-aged woman attempts to reconstruct her life around it. Not everybody likes this change. Paula’s husband feels that she uses autism as an excuse for certain “unpleasing” types of behavior. Rather than carefully placed dramatic cuts during the couple’s arguments, Larsen leaves us with the ugly truth of autism as a cultural label.
As I got up from the screening, dried off but sore, I kept questioning if I was autistic or not. Neurotypical shatters any preconceived notions about autism and autistics. While it isn’t a completely perfect film, the lesser moments are easily overshadowed by its emotional power. It’s a documentary that doesn’t overstep its intelligence and makes a statement without a soapbox.
Daniel Engelke is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Film & Video program. He resides in New York as a freelance writer and videographer. With expertise in French & British New Wave Cinema and Italian Neo-Realism, Daniel also works as a director and intern for Edward Bass Films.
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