'The Reason I Jump': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Beyond words.

Inspired by the book by Naoki Higashida, translated into English by novelist David Mitchell and K. A. Yoshida, this doc offers a glimpse into the way people on the autistic spectrum see the world.

Everyone has a favorite book that we long to see adapted into a film so more people will know about the book and read it too. At the same time, we also dread the filmmakers will ruin it by misrepresenting or diluting the essence of what makes that book so special.

For many people living with autism, their most beloved tome on the subject is The Reason I Jump. This collection of 58 questions and answers on what having autism feels like, a sort of poetic catechism, was written by 13-year-old Naoki Higashida just after he had learned to use a computer and alphabet board to help him catch thoughts before, as he describes them, they fluttered away. The novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and his wife K. A. Yoshida, who have an autistic child themselves, translated the book into English in 2013 to much deserved acclaim.

Now director Jerry Rothwell's oneiric, sensuous documentary, also called The Reason I Jump, offers fans of the book an unexpected gift: Instead of a literal adaptation, Rothwell's film is a supplement, an echo, a response that enriches the experience of the original work. Not that viewers necessarily need to have read Higashida's playful, insightful prose beforehand. But those who have will feel deeply grateful that Rothwell, the film's producers Jeremy Dear and Stevie Lee (who both appear in the film with their son Joss) and all their collaborators have found such an elegant, luminous way to pay tribute to the book.

A work of cinematic alchemy, by tinkering with sound (exquisitely designed by Nick Ryan) while DP Ruben Woodin Dechamps deploys macro and ultra-wide lenses in addition to off-kilter framing, it manages to evoke the sensory distortion, intense focus and literally different way of seeing for people on the autistic spectrum. Aptly enough, it's a work that enlightens and informs but that is also ravishing to behold.

Faced with the fact that Higashida, now in his twenties, doesn't want to appear onscreen himself, the filmmakers opt to expand the remit to documenting the experience of five young people with autistic spectrum condition who either don't speak at all or don't use conventional language to communicate. In the past, people like the ones met here were often considered so severely impaired they were simply institutionalized or even worse (at the end, the film alludes to the eugenicist extermination of autistic people under the Nazis). But now new approaches in education, speech and occupational therapy offer tools to help non-verbal people speak, such as tablets and alphabet boards with letters that users with less fine motor skills can poke at to spell out words.

For Amrit, a young woman in Noida, India, painting and drawing are her main means of communicating. Her work is vibrant, bold and extremely neat, capturing the busy world around her with fluid, dashing lines. Her mother, in a moving scene, describes how in the past Amrit's inability to communicate would leave both of them screaming but now her art gives the young woman an outlet, and through the course of the film we see her preparing for a solo show in a gallery.

By way of contrast, Dear and Lee's son Joss, in his late teens, can speak quite fluently without tools, but his mind is so stirred and swept by his overwhelming sensory experience that his speech often seems incoherent and strange. He often mentions experiences that happened years ago to him in houses the family no longer lives in, as if, like the protagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five, he's become unstuck in time and experiences past and present all at once.

Because his parents are filmmakers, Rothwell has access to homemade footage showing Joss as a child, delighting in water and flashing light toys, intercut with him today, still obsessed with these same things but also now "green boxes," or pad-mounted transformers that distribute electricity in some municipal areas. Those emit their own distinctive hum, or to Joss' ears "music," and he can hear from great distances.

In Arlington, Virginia, the filmmakers meet Emma Budway and Ben McGann, teenage best friends who attend a special school together and are practically inseparable. Using alphabet boards to communicate, they have means to express themselves quite eloquently, although the film demonstrates that this takes more time than just speaking. Still it's worth it to watch Ben pick out the letters to say that without having people with autism participating in the conversation about the condition, it's not a conversation.

Finally, the film travels to Sierra Leone, where Jestina lives with her mother and father. Arguably the least able of the five young people we meet, Jestina is clearly deeply loved by her parents, who have started a special school for other children like her in Freetown. It's a vitally necessary project in a country where people with ASC are still suspected of being witches or possessed. "The lucky ones are the ones who are still alive," observes Jestina's mother, as many are left to die in the bush by parents who don't understand their children's needs and are afraid of the social stigma that comes from having a disabled child.

Around these stories, Rothwell weaves in an interview with Mitchell himself, as well as a framing device that features an English voice reading passages from Higashida's book. The voiceover explains, for instance, why he (like Joss) loves to jump on trampolines or why he feels the need to wander from home or run off sometimes. Meanwhile, we see a little biracial boy of about 8 or 9 with autism (Jim Fujiwara), exploring a vast, mostly empty landscape of towering electricity pylons, soaring brickwork bridges and fields of grass. The camera goes in tight on the patterns of the swaying stalks, or the doppler shift illusion of planted rows of trees, the sort of optical flutterings that mesmerize people on the spectrum. These expressionist touches are deployed throughout, offering a cinematic approximation of the sensory distortion and overload experienced by people on the spectrum.

As a critic, I feel this is a wondrous work, one that captures, as far as I can tell as a neurotypical person, a lot of what it's like to live with the condition. But as the parent of a child with autism, one who struggles with sensory overload in much the same way as all the kids met here, I can't help wondering what he will make of it. He'll probably complain that there aren't enough cats in it — but I think he'll also appreciate the effort to show how people like him see the world, in their own words.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition) 
With: Jim Fujiwara, Amrit, Emma Budway, Joss Dear, Jestina, Ben McGann, David Mitchell, Elizabeth Vosseller
Production: A BFI presentation of an Ideas Room, MetFilm, Vulcan Productions, Runaway Fridge production
Director: Jerry Rothwell
Based on the book 'The Reason I Jump' by Naoki Higashida, English translation by David Mitchell, K. A. Yoshida
Producers: Jeremy Dear, Stevie Lee, Al Morrow
Executive producers:Stewart le Marechal, Jonny Persey, Peter Webber, Jody Allen, Paul G. Allen, Rocky Collins, Jannat Gargi, Ruth Johnston, Carole Tomko, Lizzie Francke
Director of photography: Ruben Woodin Dechamps
Editor: David Charap
Composer: Nainita Desai
Sound recordist: Sara de Oliveira Lima
Sound designer: Nick Ryan
Sales: MetFilm Sales

No rating; 82 minutes