It seems like every documentary requires a gimmick, even one dealing with as serious a subject as autism. As might be deduced from its title, the one in Richard Everts’ The United States of Autism is a road trip, specifically an 11,000 forty-day journey in which the filmmaker crisscrossed the country to speak to individuals, families, politicians, doctors and other relevant figures about this serious issue that has reached epidemic proportions.
Its cutesy concept notwithstanding, the film delivers many profoundly emotional moments in its filmed encounters with those affected by the condition, although its breadth is ultimately more impressive than its depth. Opening for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, its larger viewership will probably stem from grassroots screenings.
Everts has a personal stake in the matter; his teenage son is autistic, which adds an undeniably heartfelt element to the proceedings. On the other hand, the debuting filmmaker makes the typical mistake of injecting his own irrelevant issues into the proceedings, such as his feelings toward the father who gave him up for adoption when he was a child. Their reunion late in the film, and such moments as when he’s warmly greeted by his wife after returning from his journey, have a stilted, staged feel.
The film certainly earns points for its diversity of interviews, with Everts talking to people of many different ethnicities and religious persuasions, ranging from Chinese immigrants to Mormons. One moving vignette included a little girl operating a “Lemonade for Autism” stand to raise money for the cause.
Most of the very brief interviews concentrate on the personal travails of the autism sufferers and their families, with only brief explorations into the debatable cause of the disorder. Brief mentions are made about such subjects as vaccines, environmental conditions and diagnosis issues, but for the most part, the film avoids wading into controversial waters.
Political issues are touched on only fleetingly, such as an interview with a Republican activist in Oklahoma who’s been trying to get an aid bill passed by the state legislature for years without success. “It’s like, we’ll take care of you until the day you’re born, then you’re on your own,” he bitterly comments.
Ultimately, the film succeeds in its admirable goal of putting a human face on a disorder that many of those who lack a personal connection to it fail to fully comprehend or, in the worst cases, tolerate.
Opens August 9 (The Tommy Foundation)
Director-editor: Richard Everts
Producers: Sugey Cruz-Everts, Richard Everts
Executive producers: Sugey Cruz-Everts, Richard Everts, Daniel Sokola
Director of photography: Rene Duran
Composer: Jesse Clark
Not rated, 93 min.