Tribeca Film Festival Review: AUTISM IN LOVE

I don’t think I’ve ever heard people cheer during a documentary before.

Autism: a condition that impairs communication, social interaction, forming relationships and understanding abstract concepts.

Love: an abstraction that involves communicating, interacting and forming relationships.

Autism In Love: A heartbreaking yet optimistic exploration of something we talk about all the time, through the eyes of people we don’t talk about enough. Paradoxical on paper, this documentary about the personal outlooks and daily routines of several people along the autistic spectrum is as simple as they come, because it lets its complex characters do all the talking. Lenny is single, unemployed and in his mid-20s, and often clashes with his mother over what he perceives as "the perfect girl." Lindsey and David are eight years into their relationship, and they each have their own fears about taking the next step. And Stephen has to deal with the end of his seventeen-year long marriage due to his wife’s terminal diagnosis as he spends time with his aging parents.

Unlike how people along the spectrum are often portrayed in media, the film opts to deals with their every day nitty-gritties. Their pressures, their problems, and their apprehensions. Rather than speaking for them about their conditions (save for a simple dictionary definition at the beginning) the film lets Lenny, Lindsey, David and Stephen do most of the talking, allowing only their parents and Stephen’s mildly learning-disabled wife to talk about their experiences over the years. The film also asks questions we’re all familiar with: what is love? How do you know when you’re in love? How do you know when you’ve stopped being in love? The answers however, are filtered through very specific lenses that come from very specific standpoints depending on who’s giving them.

Lenny is somewhat of a shut-in, but really gets talking whenever he can make the conversation about sports. His mother tries to suggest online dating, and during the discussion of his profile, we get some insight into how similarly Lenny perceives sex and romance. His insistence upon finding a woman with a lower income and less independence than him are a result of basing his worldview strictly on traditional notions of gender without questioning them, and spending way too much time in all the wrong corners of the internet. That coupled with his self-portrait of self-loathing and constant feelings of inadequacy manage to hold a pretty devastating mirror up to social masculinity. “That’s just the way it has to be!”

Lindsey and David are complimentary opposites. She’s an artist, he breaks down emotions and experiences by comparing them to energy waves. She wears jewelry to protect herself from “vulnerable elements”, he watches the weather channel and judges people according to the mathematical formula “L + P + 2T,” where someone’s looks and their personality make up 25% each, but a greater weight is given to "T," which stands for how well they treat you. They’ve talked about marriage several times, Lindsey being in love with the idea despite her fears of change, and David breaking down his reasons for and against into purely logical arguments. Despite their differences on the matter, they’re both in it for the long haul.

Stephen, slightly further along on the spectrum, has a hard time with anything but polite small-talk, even with his wife of seventeen years. Her diagnosis and subsequent passing were things he might not have been able to fully comprehend, and the grief he obviously felt was difficult for him to express, but his parents pushing him to get back into his various routines is what ultimately helped him cope. He leaves at 4:30 in the morning, works 7 to 3, takes a shower at 7:00pm on the dot, cooks hot dogs for his parents every Sunday, and watches Jeopardy with them daily, answering every question with gusto. Ask Stephen about his day, and every question has an exact, to-the-point answer. Stephen’s all about the answers, but the only question he can’t answer is what it means to be in love. His only response to that one is a polite “I don’t know” before moving on to the next one.

The three stories are given equal time to play out, with each being photographed in a way that matches both the subjects and their environments. Lenny’s urban Southern California surroundings and his rough-around-the edges appearance lend themselves to a dirtier, more guerrilla style. He and his mom argue in still, grainy two-shots lit only by his game of Grand Theft Auto, and many of the interviews happen in informal settings. His mother sits curled up on couch drinking out of a plastic water bottle for her solo moments, and Lenny talks about how much he wishes he wasn’t autistic while sitting either at IHop (whether or not this was actually the case, the camera seemed like it had been snuck in), or in the passenger’s seat of a car. What separates Lenny’s interviews from the others, and from most interviews to be found in documentaries, is how raw and unfiltered they feel. There’s no planning, nor a real line of questioning, and the focus isn’t on facts or the recounting of events. It’s entirely about Lenny’s feelings at any given moment and how his condition poses problems for him. As his repetitive extemporizing continues, the reason for his insistence upon needing to feel superior to women becomes clear: his own inferiority complex because of how people perceive his autism, which makes him hate himself so much that he self-harms.

Lindsey and David’s quaint, suburban household is lit with a certain warmth, and the comfortable medium framing of their interviews allow their segments to have a calming effect. Tight close-ups are rare in documentary cinema, reserved usually for devastation, like in The Act of Killing, or revelation, like in The Impostor, yet they’re given two very particular uses during Autism In Love that we may not have seen before. During the moments of discomfort that some of these folks feel in front of the camera (primarily Lindsey and Stephen), and during the times Lindsey and David are talking about each other and they can’t quite articulate what they’re trying to bring across. In those moments, the film cuts to the faces of their partners, simply looking into the camera, as if it were filling in the gaps for them.

Stephen lives in rural Minnesota, and even the natural light that highlights the contours of his kind face is cold and distant. There’s an emotional distance between him and the camera that the director often has to compensate for, going in close when Stephen talks about the most mundane things (stamps and towels) but in doing so, we get to see a glimmer in his eyes because of how much his daily routines mean to him. The tight close-ups also end up having to move around with Stephen during certain moments he’s uncomfortable and fidgety, usually when he can’t figure out how to articulate his feelings on love and marriage. The camera does however, take a step back when he’s around his wife or his parents. Even though his ability to fully communicate is stunted, he seems to find a sense of calm in other people.

All four subjects have different behavioural specificities, and wildly different personalities and interests, and the film humanizes them in a way that feels necessary amidst all this banal controversy about vaccines. Even if one were to assume there’s any truth to the baseless bile about how they cause autism, the fact that so many parents would rather have their kids contract deadly diseases and die than have them be autistic is concerning, but Autism In Love paints a powerful picture of different people along different points on the spectrum that could, at the very least, make people consider seeing people with autism a little differently. It talks about the challenges faced by both them and their loved ones, challenges that are often emotionally taxing, but the film eventually looks to the more positive side of things, leaving each story in a place that feels complete. Lenny’s happier and more comfortable with himself now that he has a job to focus on. Stephen’s come to terms with missing his wife in whatever way he can. And Lindsey finally gets over her fears of marriage once David decides to let go of his, proposing to her at the spot where they had their first date. At the end of the day, as much as it’s a film about people who are different from us, it’s also about how we’re the same.