'Autism in Love': Tribeca Review

An admirable doc with high production values

Three stories about people on the autism spectrum coping with the challenges of romantic relationships are woven together in director Matt Fuller's doc debut

Unveiled at Tribeca in the documentary competition, director Matt Fuller's polished documentary debut Autism in Love takes an affectionate but clear-eyed look at the romantic lives of several people on the autistic spectrum (AS). Encompassing a socially isolated young man, a couple in their 30s working through the challenges of long-term commitment and a middle-aged man whose wife is gravely ill, it's a judiciously balanced work, which helpfully dispels persistent and irritating myths about AS folk's supposed coldness and disinterest in others. One or two scenes feel a bit staged for the camera in order to ensure an upbeat conclusion, but that probably will only be an asset in terms of the film's commercial prospects. Specialist festivals and broadcasters are likely to show it some love.

Structurally, the film follows three different stories in separate locales and cuts between them throughout, producing interesting contrasts illustrating how the diversely able subjects deal with their problems.

In Los Angeles, young Lenny Felix is unemployed and lives with his supportive single mother Kathy Lettieri, but longs to have a girlfriend. However, his fixed, oddly old-fashioned ideas about what sort of woman he should date make things trickier since anyone more financially secure than himself is out. That pretty much eliminates a huge swathe of potential mates, but Lenny is adamant on the subject, despite Kathy's patient attempts to dissuade him otherwise. Although his unfiltered honesty is often endearing, it's painful to hear how much he loathes his own nature since, as he sees it, his condition has brought him nothing but rejection throughout his short life.  In one wrenching scene, on the verge of tears he tells Fuller that, “I would rather be a normal man than an autistic person with a million dollars.”

While Lenny's autistic qualities are actually relatively subtle, those of Stephen Goodman, a resident of St. Paul, Minn., are more obvious. With his staccato, monotone speech, almost savant-like memory skills (while watching Jeopardy, he gets every answer right), and air of preoccupied self-absorption, he's a ringer, even physically, for the character Dustin Hoffman played in in Rain Man. When first met, he's seen living with his elderly, immigrant parents, setting up viewers to think of him as the least capable, out all the people in the film, of forming a relationship. Then, half-hour in, the film reveals that Stephen is actually married to Geeta, a woman with intellectual disabilities but greater emotional intelligence than Stephen, who is very sick with cancer. As her condition deteriorates, it's clear Stephen is deeply bereft but hasn't the capacity to express his feelings.   

Meanwhile, the story of Lindsey Nebeker and her partner Dave Hamrick is a sweet romantic comedy in miniature. Both very “high-functioning,” employed, and self-sufficient, the two met ten years ago at a conference on autism and rub along relatively happily together, although they've had to learn how to cope with each other's individual quirks. There's a great scene, for example, where she is solemnly explaining how wearing big necklaces helps her feel less vulnerable, and he smiles and listens lovingly – until the weather report comes on the TV and he just can't resist turning away to watch it. Over the course of the film, Dave works up the courage to propose to Lindsey, but comically every time he's about to pop the question something happens to stop him. When the time is right, the high quality of the recorded sound suggests radio mics or hidden equipment may have been used and the moment was perhaps not quite as spontaneous as it tries to look.

Another niggle is the title, which is semantically perplexing. How can an abstract medical condition (some would say disorder) be in love? And for those with the condition, many of whom bridle at the label "autistic person" instead of "person with autism," the title borders a bit on the reductive. But those are minor quibbles against a film that otherwise is pretty unassailably admirable and made with high production values, from the effortless editing by Alex O'Flinn and tasteful graphics to Mac Quayle's atmospheric but unobtrusive score. 

Production company: A CG Entertainment production
Director: Matt Fuller
Producer: Carolina Groppa. Matt Fuller
Executive producer: Ira P. Heilveil
Cinematographer: Scott Uhlfelder
Editor: Alex O'Flinn
Music: Mac Quayle
Sales: Preferred Content

No rating, 75 minutes