The Reason I Jump documentary review: the experience of being autistic

MaryAnn’s quick take: An extraordinary cinematic experience that immerses us into the personal landscapes of profoundly autistic, nonverbal young people. The empathy it engenders is deeply felt and enormously eye-opening.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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How do profoundly autistic people experience the world? We might make educated guesses from the behavior of some — such as seeming physical and emotional meltdowns in the face of apparent sensory overstimulation — that it is acutely different from how the rest of us navigate the boundaries between our inner and outer lives. Better than guessing, though: What if people who are autistic and nonverbal were able to tell us what’s going on with them, were able to share how they feel and what they’re thinking?

That is what Naoki Higashida does in his bestselling 2015 book The Reason I Jump, written when he was 13 years old. Allegedly. There is enormous contention around the account attributed to the severely autistic boy. Is it, perhaps, more the result of wishful thinking on the part of his mother, who guided him through a form of facilitated communication — pointing to characters on a board to craft sentences and paragraphs — to help him write the book?

The questions about the authenticity of the words and ideas attributed to Higashida would be a problem if British documentarian Jerry Rothwell’s film of the same name were a direct adaptation of the book. Instead, Rothwell (How to Change the World) uses it as a springboard to introduce us to several young people around the world who are neurodiverse and nonverbal, yet far from noncommunicative. A young woman in India creates stunning paintings of her everyday life, ones that tell vivid stories and speak of her keen observations of the people and places around her, and of her recognition of the relationships between and among them all. A young man and woman in the United States share a lively best-friendship, even ribbing each other and complaining about the poor education they received, using similar forms of facilitated communication to Higashida… and they are very clearly, very obviously unprompted and undirected. They truly are expressing themselves in ways that are genuine. So might Higashida have been as well?

The Reason I Jump Jim Fujiwara
We all wander in our own landscapes, but some are more remote than others…

Others of the autistic young people we meet here are less able to relay what they are thinking and feeling, but we are offered some insight — perhaps — via Higashida’s words, spoken in narration (in English) by actor Jordan O’Donegan. Ruben Woodin Dechamps’s extraordinary cinematography immerses us in a perspective focused on tiny details rather than big pictures, of time jumbled up so that long ago and right now feel indistinguishable, of wandering in a landscape that is isolating but also intensely engaging and inescapably gripping. Rothwell depicts this in a way both literal and figurative, with sequences following Jim Fujiwara, a nonverbal autistic child actor meant to represent Higashida at the age when he wrote his book, as he explores huge, quiet places of both structural and natural beauty.

Is there a danger that we are falsely equating what an explosively angry British teenager is experiencing with the soothing explanation Higashida has for why he lashes out, what is the root of his rage? Perhaps. But it is the beginning of understanding, and the empathy it engenders is deeply felt and enormously eye-opening.

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Mon, Jun 21, 2021 2:09pm

Thank you for presenting this. I am looking forward to streaming it from a virtual cinema shortly.

“MaryAnn’s quick take: An extraordinary cinematic experience that immerses us into the personal landscapes of profoundly autistic, nonverbal young people. The empathy it engenders is deeply felt and enormously eye-opening.”

Coming to your site and experiencing your reviews of the Fantastic Beasts series one cannot help but notice an interesting confluence of posts on your site in the last week. Given the eye-opening understanding your review and quick take imply from The Reason I Jump with regard to the scientific reality of the neurodiversity people with mood and developmental disorders have, would you like to reconsider your recognition and treatment of the characters of Newt Scamander and Arthur Fleck, how they express themselves and the people and situations they represent?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  taffee3
Mon, Jun 21, 2021 9:22pm

You’re suggesting that because I recommended a documentary about autism that I should change my reviews of fictional movies?

That’s not how any of this works.

As Roger Ebert wisely said, It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jun 22, 2021 12:53am

No, not even close to what I said. I said nothing about your review of the movie. I asked about your recognition of who the characters are and the real groups of people they so obviously, accurately and beautifully (or painfully) represent in our society. When they are blatantly put right in front of us, do we as a society even recognize who they are, why they express themselves as they do and give that expression legitimacy. If we are able to make that foundational recognition of a person who behaves and expresses themselves differently than you or I do, the obvious next question is do we treat that group of people with respect and support for their situation or do we ignore, belittle demean and bully them.

Your talents as a writer are well on display and in this review you very nicely delineate an eye opening recognition we all go through to the concept that people may truly and genuinely express themselves, interact with others, communicate and behave in ways that are different than what the majority of us would consider the norm.

Given that recognition from The Reason I Jump and our ability to grow, do you view the character of Newt Scamander, who he is, the segment of society he so beautifully portrays and represents and your value, writings and treatment of him any differently now than you did previously? As you look back at The Joker would you see any of the profound moments and effects that Arthur Fleck evolves through that are so painfully and applicably portrayed in his illness that represents such a large segment of our society and respond any differently in your writings? Certainly there is no advocacy for the ultimate outcome and actions of this character and much of what he goes through is condensed and amplified in order to fit into the format of a movie, but as your The Reason I Jump review notes the perspective of the tiny details and expression of illness this person goes through are hauntingly realistic. When it comes to these characters, both of these movies have how it’s about it down pat.

How we recognize and treat people and segments of society who express themselves, respond and react differently than we do tells us a lot. If we are not able to even recognize much less respond functionally and empathetically to a fictional yet accurately portrayed character that is overtly representative of our society, what hope do we have in the real world?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  taffee3
Tue, Jun 22, 2021 6:46am

If you are not talking about my reviews, then I don’t know what you’re talking about. Newt Scamander and Arthur Fleck are not real people. They are fictional characters who have appeared in movies that I have reviewed negatively. You are literally here asking me to reconsider those reviews. You are also positing your opinion of these movies — that those characters are portrayed “beautifully” — as fact. It is not fact.

Neither the Fantastic Beasts movies nor Joker are fit to lick the boots of this documentary. Nothing about this movie or what I’ve written here changes my mind about those movies. Sorry.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jun 25, 2021 7:39pm

” Newt Scamander and Arthur Fleck are not real people. They are fictional characters who have appeared in movies that I have reviewed negatively.”

So then, you’re filling in your own bingo card.
I believe N5 would be the square

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  taffee3
Sat, Jun 26, 2021 4:05pm

Cute. But that’s not at all applicable to what we are talking about here.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jun 28, 2021 9:17pm

Again, no I am not literally here asking you to reconsider those reviews. I do not disagree that there is much in the structure of these movies that is crowded and overly complex…requiring a family tree to follow Credence path. But so much of movies and art is who and what it represents in our society forcing us to recognize and adapt to things we may not have realized before. The stories in art are not just fictional characters. I am asking if you recognize who the characters are, the real people they so blatantly represent in our society, how they express themselves and the implications of how you treated them and what you said about them. The level of disconnect her is quite amazing especially in the context of the message conveyed in The Reason I Jump (TRIJ) that you appear to have appreciated. Given the wonderful lessons expressed in that documentary, I guess I should not be surprised..
“…neurotypicals are rubbish at understanding anything that’s not neurotypical.”
For anyone that has a family member or cared for a person on the autism spectrum either personally or professionally, Newt Scamander is recognizable and obviously on the spectrum.
-He displays poor eye contact, he struggles to express himself verbally and his speech is awkward. From TRIJ, “As soon as I try to speak with someone my words vanish. There is a gap between what I’m thinking and what I’m saying.”
-The lack of ability to recognize and interact appropriately with social cues and responses is obviously evident. Newt’s boggart is having to work in an office. From TRIJ, “I tried to keep her from doing socially awkward things. Then I realized how difficult it is for her.”
-People with autism are often extremely talented and focused in particular activities. He displays obvious talents for interacting empathetically with nature and its creatures. HIs autistic focus and advocacy is in this case a wonderful benefit. “I can’t admire people whose answer to everything they don’t understand is to kill it.” Again directly from TRIJ, “However often I am ignored and pushed away by other people, nature always embraces me.” Your dismissal of his work as incompetent fails to recognize his autistic spectrum focus in trying to learn and work with these creatures in a society that wants to kill and ignore them and punish anyone who would want to do such a thing. The fact that he has difficulty controlling these creatures is actually a perfectly and logically crafted part of the plot. He is the first person who has ever tried to interact constructively with the most highly evolved creatures of nature and in this case of magical nature and he is having to do it alone, in secret and in hiding. The natural learning process in such a difficult endeavor is going to be rife with failure and logically illustrated as such here. In addition, autistic spectrum individuals who struggle to simply maintain eye contact in a social setting, often give deeply emotional and moving artistic portrayals in the familiar, controlled setting of the stage or in musical performance. This is nicely reflected in Beasts in the vibrant change in affect and eye contact Newt displays when he moves from a neurotypical social situation to the menagerie and interaction he achieves with his magical creatures. TRIJ reflects this in the drawn artistic expression of those represented on the spectrum.
-There are so many other structures in the plot that represent and constructively incorporate his autistic traits but I’ll end with this. People on the autistic spectrum often have a more rigid sense and adherence to what is right or correct.
The relationship between moral judgment and cooperation in children with high-functioning autism
Jing Li,1 Liqi Zhu,a,1 and Michaela Gummerum2
” Thus, HFA children might also be more rule-oriented when it comes to moral actions. Similarly, Baron-Cohen28 argued that although autistic individuals are typically self-focused, they are highly moral people, have a strong sense of justice, and think deeply about how to be good.”

While this may seem overly clinical, its application in Grindewald is amazing and this unique expression of who Newt is as a person on the autistic spectrum and those it represents is logically crafted into the story. Grindewald is a world where even the most intelligent and talented people are being seduced by the populist message of superiority from a charismatic leader. (That doesn’t sound at all representative of our society in the last decade does it?) Dumbledore eloquently recognizes this and how Newt’s unique expression of who he is as a person will have strengths and value in this situation. “You do not seek power or popularity. You simply ask, is a thing right in and of itself? And if it is you do it no matter the cost.” Dumbledore recognizes perfectly the unique and valued expression of Newt Scamander as a person and that those are the exact traits that will be needed to resist and defeat Grindewald.
You feel, ” The movies so far do not understand what Scamander’s role is.” The lack of understanding may not be on the movie’s part. Newt, logically, is the one to battle Grindewald.

Contrast that recognition and validation of who someone is as a person and who they represent in our society with your wonderful expression of tolerance and acceptance.
“So: “It has to be you,” Dumbledore tells Scamander (Eddie Redmayne: Early Man, The Danish Girl), but we never understand why: He’s a bumbling dork writing a book about creatures that even wizards think are weird. What possible reason could there be for him to be present in this story at all?” … We don’t recognize who you are, we’ll belittle you as a bumbling dork, we’ll judge you because you don’t like the things we do and we’ll let you know that you don’t have a place in our narrative. Again, amazingly expressed and paralleled in TRIJ, “We are born outside the regime of your civilization.”
And then there’s these lovely bits..
-“Not a fan of Eddie Redmayne” Out curiosity, what’s wrong with him?”
-“He is a black hole of charisma. He has no personality onscreen. He’s beyond bland. He’s blah.”
-“But even she was stuck with a white dork at the center, she could have done much better with the supporting characters”
-“Scamander is thinly drawn, barely even conceived as a persontweet: “I annoy people,” he tells someone, but he doesn’t even do that, he’s such a blank. He brings nothing to the actual story.”
There is nothing wrong with him or the segment of our society that he so blatantly represents, he is not a black hole of charisma. He is very deeply drawn as outlined above and should not be belittled as a white dork. He is obviously representing a person on the autistic spectrum. If we don’t recognize that and act appropriately, then it is an indictment of our society and we have a lot more education to pursue such as that delivered in TRIJ. Even if we don’t fully recognize who he is, why would we belittle and dismiss anyone in the fashion that has been done above. But if this wasn’t enough, there is finally this..
-“• MORE! incentive to punch Newt Scamander in the face!”……..Even if you don’t recognize him as a person and who he represents in our society…even if you are thinking it in your head…why would you possibly openly express a desire to physically assault and hurt someone that is different than you. The arts community is one of the most open. supportive and inclusive communities in the world. Having such sentiments expressed in a forum that is even peripherally related to the arts community is…well, I’ll withhold the adjectives that are coming up from my gut to describe your sentiments.

Thank you amanohyo for at least the recognition of this in your Grindewald comments but it goes far beyond simple recognition and representation. How do we treat them? If as demonstrated in these fantastic beasts’ writings and discussions we can’t recognize and acknowledge them even after a movie such as TRIJ, do we have any hope of placing value in their talents and presence in our society as a contributing individual?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  taffee3
Tue, Jun 29, 2021 8:41pm

Again, no I am not literally here asking you to reconsider those reviews.

But then you literally go on to ask me to do precisely that.

But so much of movies and art is who and what it represents in our society forcing us to recognize and adapt to things we may not have realized before. The stories in art are not just fictional characters.

I agree. I’ve been writing about and around this for many years. But characters have to serve a story, and vice versa.

the real people they so blatantly represent in our society

Again, I ask you to consider that characters that you think “blatantly” represent something may not, in fact, be so blatant after all.

Newt Scamander is recognizable and obviously on the spectrum.

Whether this character is on the spectrum or not is debatable. What really is not debatable is whether the movies he has appeared in have any interest in depicting a character who is on the spectrum, and working that into a story that serves that depiction. I would argue that those movies themselves have no interest in whether he is on the spectrum or not. The many problems with the Fantastic Beast movies have absolutely nothing to do with whether Newt is on the spectrum or not.