Despite the blunt activism of the secondary title (which likens the disability to a scolding parent), A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism is a relatively benign probe into what is steadily becoming our species’ most alarming epidemic. Narrativizing the international research of one Icelandic parent determined to better understand her son’s condition, if not gain the hope of fostering recovery, the film skittishly refuses to tackle any etiological theories that bear the hint of polemical accusation. As such, there’s no hot-button testimony regarding casein or gluten, and no inquiry into the conspiratorial aura surrounding thimerosal (a mercury-laden vaccine additive that scientists dismiss as a specious cause but federal courts ruled as a conclusive contributor in at least one highly publicized instance).
Simply failing to acknowledge these aggressive debates doesn’t immediately suggest a lack of incisiveness. The Dogme-inspired overexposure of the opening nature shots, where 10-year-old Keli flails about monochromatic tundra and volcanic hot springs, seems to prepare us for a personal, rather than a political or even clinical journey. What follows, however, is a hit-or-miss hodgepodge of talking heads that illuminate autism from a conservative, “as-far-we-know” perspective; experts present trends in behavioral and neurological data while parents who confront the disability on a daily basis offer an in-the-trenches emotional portrait. And in attempting to diplomatically sidestep both the clichés of memoir and the controversial pressure points that a more comprehensive study would have fingered, director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson compromises the topic into public-broadcasting sterility.
Of course, A Mother’s Courage traffics such subcutaneously persuasive content—and pays tribute to such a nobly frustrated form of love—that unspeakable finesse would be required to approach the gluten or thimerosal hypotheses fairly, and the admittedly sketchy evidence for both represents a convolution that would have wrecked the movie’s clear-headedly optimistic tone. But Fridriksson’s scenarios can’t escape the uneasiness of what those theories speculate, whether accurate or not. We wince as one middle-American, Costco-shopping family feeds their autistic son Doritos, ranch dressing, and RC cola for lunch (a diet that constitutes abuse toward any child, let alone one with environmental sensitivities). And in the documentary’s most devastating testimony, a father describes watching his daughter develop normally until the age of three, when she confronted him one day with abstract panic about being unable to speak properly (it’s not mentioned if she received vaccines, but the very reference to that fateful age elevates our eyebrows).
The documentary instead functions most accessibly as an appreciation of the communicative, rather than cognitive, struggle that autism necessitates. Interviews with top researcher Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr. Temple Grandin, the “Helen Keller” of the handicap, don’t provide any scientific breakthroughs, but their intimacy with the topic allows them to deftly adjust our limited perception of the inflicted. (These adjustments, however, evince a grating fuzziness from time to time; the numerous distinctions, for example, between autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are never clearly delineated.) Grandin, in particular, gesticulates her way through a nuts-and-bolts illustration of the knotty physiological elements that render those with autism socially awkward; finally, she adds that she wouldn’t trade her own manifestation of the condition for anything, as she enjoys the mental focus it allows. And as Margret, the “mother” of the title, speaks with and observes the one-on-one work of occupational therapists at the famed HALO clinic, we painfully realize that beneath the fractured motility and id-driven spontaneity of many autistic children are literate, rational beings no different from their peers.
We’re rooting hard for Keli when he finally reaches the HALO clinic at the movie’s end and begins to respond to its methods, though the choice to overdub his Icelandic parents’ dialogue with English speakers (one of them Kate Winslet) maintains a distracting, muted otherworldliness. But by this point the film isn’t so much a story about this particular mother’s courage as it is a crash course in autism with Margret acting as study guide—and this textbook’s most memorable moments, unfortunately, are those that draw attention to Fredricksson’s tendentious omissions. Somewhat ironically, the apolitical stance of A Mother’s Courage is made possible only by a disregard for autism’s hysterically hypothetical periphery.