A Mother's Courage

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Reviewer:Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): **

It's difficult to avoid comparisons between A Mother's Courage (originally titled The Sunshine Boy) with The Horse Boy (originally titled Over the Hills and Far Away) another recent autobiographical documentary on the stress put on families dealing with Autism. With Horse Boy, Rupert Isaacson documented his family's trip from their cozy Texas suburb to the far-flung provinces of Mongolia to seek shamanic treatments from reindeer herders. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Courage centers on Margret Dagmar Ericsdottirs, an Icelandic women from a similarly privileged family who travels to the States to visit different schools and individual specialists in the field of Autism. Their 8 year old son Kaley has gone through many experimental treatments with little results and has now aged past the point of most effective interventions.

Autism is a little understood neurological disorder that heightens some senses to the point of being unable to cope with outside stimuli. Kids on the more progressed end of the spectrum can appear to be blind, deaf or unable to speak even though there is no physical abnormality. The affected often develop repetitive behaviors to self-stimulate in a controlled, soothing way. Even those on the less-impacted end of the spectrum have extreme difficulty empathizing or interacting with their parents and peers.

While sympathetic to these families' struggle, Fridriksson seems particularly focused on the excesses of American families' lifestyles (an inevitable parallel in a culture with enough wealthy and self-determination to be at the forefront of Autism treatments). When spending time with various Americans the camera carefully monitors indulgent snack food, the paper plates they use, the locks on the fridge and pantry with special reverie given to the Costco shopping experience.

As in Horse Boy, an appearance is made by Temple Grandin, the Autistic scientist whose life story appears to be a great motivator for families trying to cope. Grandin was born in the 1940s when Autism was commonly misdiagnosed as severe mental retardation. Her parents were told by physicians that she should be left in an institution but her mother chose to keep Grandin at home, working with her closely. Grandin is now a well-respected inventor who is frequently called upon to act as a bridge communicator between sufferers of Autism and the people who want to help them. The last line of her Courage interview is "I think being a non-Autist would be boring!" As if to send the message to parents bedraggled by constant tantrums, slow development and shattered hopes, 'just keep going and perhaps your child could become a respected scientist!'

These films go a long way to normalizing the Autism experience by showing audiences what the impairment is and what it isn't. But there's a human element often lacking in both that keeps them humming at a Hallmark-level of introspection. Each film mentions the higher divorce rate amongst parents of Autists, but would rather talk (in great detail) about the trevails of delays potty training, over how this has changed their interactions with each other or perspectives on the world they live in. We can see in the popular culture hints at clashes between paranoid, desperate parents and frustrated, underfunded medical professionals about what the causes and effective treatments for Autism are. Why not let one of these people examine an issue that must eat at them daily?

It's difficult to see the intense one-on-one therapy--from a specialist so specialized she more or less invented her practice, constantly accompanied by an observing parent who can replicate the new communication strategies at home--as a scalable solution. It's harsh to say long stretches of tedious therapy practice lacks cinematic suspense, but the filmmaker's need to give his subject an uplifting third act (Kaley wants to play the piano!) complete with heavy-handed musical cues is simply a failure of storytelling and feels like a real disservice to the far more interesting complexity of the larger Autism ecosystem.

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