Review: The Reason I Jump Empathetically Challenges Our Views of Autism

The film weaves together the stories of five mostly nonverbal autistic teens to present a rich tapestry of the autistic experience.

The Reason I Jump
Photo: Kino Lorber

Naoki Higashida’s 2007 bestseller The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, written when the nonverbal autistic author was only 13 years old, gives an impressionistic account of what it’s like to see the world through his eyes. As author David Mitchell, who translated the book into English and has an autistic son of his own, tells it, it is “an envoy from another world, whose culture, whose rules, whose reasons I didn’t understand.” In undertaking the difficult task of illustrating the neurodiversity that’s the essence of The Reason I Jump, director Jerry Rothwell relies heavily on both poetic excerpts from the book, read in voiceover, and an array of stylistic flourishes, such as morphed or heightened sounds and extreme, abstracted close-ups, that help to cinematically replicate the sense-based experience of seeing and hearing the world through autistic eyes and ears.

These more aesthetically adventurous passages are also accompanied by moody footage of an autistic boy (Jim Fujiwara) as he explores his coastal surroundings. He’s clearly an avatar for Higashida, and this fact, along with these sequences’ reliance on the source text for inspiration, suggests that the film is something of a straight adaptation. But The Reason I Jump expands upon the book that inspired it with carefully attuned and deeply compassionate stories of five mostly nonverbal autistic teens and adults from around the world.

Joss, a partially verbal teenager from England, has difficulty distinguishing between the traumatic events of the distant past and the joys of the present, leading to outbursts of frustration. In India, a young woman named Amrit vents her frustrations through increasingly elaborate drawings, eventually leading to her getting her own art show. Ben and Emma, from Virginia, represent a beacon of hope for nonverbal autistic people, both in their profoundly touching friendship and their teacher’s experimental educational methods that help them to spell out the words that they cannot speak. And in Sierra Leone, one sees the worst of what can come from humanity’s grave misunderstandings of autism in a community’s demands that Jestina and others like her move away, after branding them as witches or demons.

Throughout The Reason I Jump, these stories are weaved together to present a rich tapestry of the autistic experience. The film covers a wide range of behaviors that are frequently vexing to neurotypical individuals and which harken back to passages from Higashida’s book that describe everything from a tendency to see only the minute details of one’s surroundings at first blush, to the sensory overload that many people affected by autism experience when they hear normal everyday sounds. It’s an effective strategy for presenting both the causes and effects of autistic behaviors, but The Reason I Jump, fortunately, isn’t always quite so direct in its approach. Indeed, the film finds many of its most moving moments by way of empathetically observing the quotidian rhythms of its subjects going about their lives.

The comfort and joy that obviously grips Joss as he intensely listens to the humming of electrical boxes says more about the way that the teenager’s mind works than words ever could. Meanwhile, scenes depicting the spelling methods used to aid Ben and Emma in communicating build to a heartrending moment where Ben, responding to his teacher’s question about how traditional education has served him over the years, determinedly spells out the phrase “They have defied our civil rights.” Moments like these powerfully challenge our preconceived notions of autism, both in terms of what we typically think of as “on the spectrum” and, more importantly, how the autistic mind actually functions.

 Director: Jerry Rothwell  Distributor: Kino Lorber  Running Time: 82 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2020  Buy: Video

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

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