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Movie Review: Mozart and the Whale

Links: IMDB / Rotten Tomatoes: Rating 53%
Director: Petter Næss
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Radha Mitchell, Gary Cole, Sheila Kelley, Erica Leerhsen, John Carroll Lynch, Nate Mooney, Rusty Schwimmer, Robert Wisdom, Allen Evangelista, Kelly B. Eviston, Jhon Goodwin, Christa Campbell

Until recently, we only had a few films about individuals who were different. There were those which were "clearly stated", like Rain Man and some which were not so obvious like Benny & Joon and Harold and Maude.

Somewhere in the new millennium, things changed and "weird" characters became interesting. Personally, I blame the TV show "Monk" for starting the trend.

Since then there have been quite a few films and television series which focus on unique individuals including; Adam, Mary and Max, Napoleon DynamiteHouse and The Big Bang Theory.

Had it been released during the "dry" period, Mozart and the Whale would have been a very impressive achievement but coming during a deluge of similar films, it's subject to comparison.

My first impression of this film is that the artist has used too broad a brush. It's as if the creative team found a book on autism and Aspergers syndrome and interpreted it literally.

Nearly all of the spectrum-dwelling characters in this film have all of the symptoms - and their characters are  completely ruled by them.

Avoiding eye contact is translated as "acting like a vampire around a crucifix", unusual gait is translated as "running with.a major limp" and obsessive special interests is translated as "having no way to talk about anything else". Sure, we see similar kinds of behaviour in people with aspergers syndrome but usually, not all at once, not in a group and not to this extent.

There's no room for subtlety in this film.

I watched the film with my wife and just as I was finding the beginning unbearable (the cross-talking reaches overload point at times), she asked me to stop the film.

She told me that the film was making her very depressed and that she was worrying and thinking "what if our kids end up like that".  I think that's where the real danger comes from in this film. It presents a very negative view of aspergers syndrome and in that sense, I feel that it does more harm than good.

Fortunately, after about the twenty minute mark, the film starts to settle. It raises some great points about acceptance and "fitting in" but doesn't adequately pursue them. When it ends all too abruptly, the audience is left with very little to go on.

It's not that I didn't like the film. I did. It's simply that it doesn't make the sort of impact that its cousins made. It's hard to tell whether its positive message about acceptance is worth the negative portrayal of life on the spectrum.

Watch with caution and don't automatically assume that it paints a picture of your child's life as an adult.

Honesty Clause: I wasn't provided with this film but went out an bought it on DVD.  Then re-encoded the thing because the DVD didn't have a subtitle track, so I had to download one and add it in myself. There's really no excuse for that sort of oversight.


Amanda said…
Do you have to watch your movies with subtitles? Only asking out of curiosity.
Gavin Bollard said…
Being deaf (well extremely hard of hearing), it's either "very loud" or subtitles.

Since I don't want to wake the kids and since I often find that the background drowns out the speech anyway, subtitles are my preferred option.

I can watch without but they no longer bother me like they used to.
Amanda said…
Thanks for the reply. I only ask because I prefer my movies with subtitles. I used to think it was because I just liked "artsy" movies and never really "got" regular movies. Thanks to my husband, I figured out the reason I did not quite get movies is because I wasn't understanding everything that was being said. Turns out, I do better reading my movies and telly shows. I was just curious if it was an aspie quirk. :) It is a perk when having children.
Gavin Bollard said…
Actually, it is also an aspie perk. Not all aspies but the certainly the word-visual ones.

It's easier/faster for many of us to process information in written form.
Amanda said…
Haha! Yes, it is a perk! It is definitely one of my favorite things! Thank goodness we have a society that embraces the online world, making it easier for words to be part of socializing. :)
Carol said…

Can you tell me about some great movies released this year? Many thanks in advance for your help! :)
Anonymous said…
I am so glad to read this post, i had a very similar reaction to your wife!! I would love your thoughts on a bollywood movie called ' my name is khan' they play it on foxtel every now and then, the main character has aspergers and i think he is so fantastic, a really lovely character. The movie itself is very 'over the top' but i would love to know your thoughts.
Chloe Fletcher said…
You should check out the movie called "Adam" starring Hugh Dancy (Adam) and Rose Byrne.

It's about a young man, who's struggling through life after his father's death and who has been on the verge of getting fired from his job because of his Aspergers.

He meets Beth (Rose Byrne) and knows he's fallen in love and she has too, but they are complete opposites.

Her parents don't like him and make fun of him, but she stills loves him.

Great movie! Won a lot of awards too!
Tyler said…
I felt similarly about this film. It seemed that every single scene needed to be a demonstration of yet another text book symptom of Aspergers or Autism as if people with Aspergers or Autism never have a "normal" moment. Everyone is also way loud and dramatic. I guess I am just a more laid back type, I actually struggled with being very shy as a teenager. I can get excited loud and angry sure but not all the damn time. Can't there be at least one laid back character. Most of the traits of Aspergers in this film I have had at one point sure but I have learned not to just talk to people to death about something they are not interested in. I like the main female character but I think its important to point out a lot of her issues aren't Aspergers they're personal issues. Also her desire to live a bohemian artsy crazy life style is not Aspergers specific. She is self consciously crazy acting, which means she is not crazy she consciously chooses to be that way its a catch 22, its just that she seems to be saying her behavior is because of her condition so that bothered me a little. Also its true that Autistic people tend to like animals but seriously there seem to be exotic animals coming out of the woodwork constantly,that seems like a lot of work/expense for characters that are otherwise so dysfunctional and unemployed, had to suspend my disbelief a little. Also I would like to clarify that while Aspergians tend to have a hard time with the complex dance of dating and attraction Aspergian/Autistic men can have just as much sexual desire as any other man and would jump at the woman they're dating bluntly saying lets go have sex and would be running to the bedroom not needing to be reluctantly dragged, were not all like Forrest Gump either. Some Aspergers/Autistic men have the exact opposite problem they end up getting in trouble for being a little too forward and unable to take a nonverbal hint from a woman that she ain't interested. I don't want women to get the wrong idea that we're all passive and boring.
Akiyo Kano said…
Thank you very much for the review. I tend to try and watch any films that have autism/bipolar (I have both) slant to it, but hate it when a film just over does it. It's great to have a warning about how autism is portraid.
Anonymous said…
Have you seen Snowcake? It is about a woman with autism not Asperger's but it really described how somebody on the spectrum can feel about death. Very well done. I did not like Mozard and the Whale. I thought they made the male character cute and quirky and the female character was just made crazy.
Rachael said…
Geez I wish i had read this review 6 months or so ago. At the time my daughter(4) was suspected as having Asperger's, she now has the official diagnosis. My husband and I watched this movie and i we were left feeling so depressed. We grieved for our daughter. We expected the worst for her and believed this must be how her life would be. The movie is definitely extreme! Thankfully we have had time to process it all and educate ourselves. I have now accepted her diagnosis and have a much more positive outlook. I have a beautiful unique little girl, who will blossom with our love and support.

Thank you for a great, imformative blog Gavin.
Anonymous said…
I recently saw "Adam" and I thought about it the same way you write here in your blog. I hate it when movies only portray the stereotypes!
I also want to thank you and Jumbled Bookcase for your comments on subtitles! This explains a lot for me!!
Attilla The Mum said…
My 8-year-old Aspie prefers to watch programs with subtitles. I believe that's how he learned to read so early. It happened by accident one day that we had the subtitles turned on when Alex was a toddler, but every show he watched after that HAD TO have subtitles.

About "Mozart and the Whale": I saw that movie a few days after Alex was diagnosed (5 years old), when I was scrambling to find ANYTHING on Asperger's syndrome, and it really disturbed me. It made everything else I discovered through research and Alex's developmental psychologist much easier to accept, actually! Thank you all for the suggestions of other movies. I've seen the trailer for "Mary and Max" and think Alex would enjoy it too. He loves stories that have characters "like" him.
Anonymous said…
This is so funny, nt with partners on the spectrum will love this. Yesterday was valentines, hubby (AS) remembered the flowers, so far so good, even remembered my favorite kind, even better. He presents them to me with smile on his face and says, " happy anniversary!" ha!!! I just love him, what can I say ......
Tia said…
Hello Gavin, I just reviewed this movie along with some others on my Asperger's blog..

I have a different perspective than you, although I admit that this movie had to grow on me. I felt the beginning was a little intense and jarring.
m said…
i disliked this film quite a bit, though i understood it's intentions were in the right place.

it's like you pointed out, the characters were more like walking diagnostic descriptions than real people...all of the traits were dutifully checked off, it was irritating to see AS people presented in such a 2 dimensional, reductive manner.

also, the main female character in the movie...she was far too screechy and honestly seemed like borderline personality disorder was more her issue, she was an awful example of AS. it was a really off-key characterization.

anyway, i was not thrilled to see this movie out there, creating a generally unpleasant view of AS.
Anonymous said…
I had been told, "This is a good film, it's about people like you," and I simply could not make it past the first five minutes. It was just every cliche in the book, as you stated, and I started to get real nervous, so I turned it off and sealed it back in the little Netflix package.

AS is something that's difficult enough to come to terms with (I was only diagnosed three years ago, in a happenstance manner) and am just now accepting this as who I am--I don't need to clutter my mind up with films and negative images such as that.

Maybe the film took a different turn, but I certainly was not sticking around for it--I couldn't.
Anonymous said…
"Since I don't want to wake the kids and since I often find that the background drowns out the speech anyway, subtitles are my preferred option."

Read , you'll like it! :)
Gerrit said…
I saw the film yesterday.. I have AS. My first reaction prior to the film was "why can we REAL Aspies not tell our stories? Why do actors have to do it for us?" (for the record: I perform with autism-related poetry...)

Now having seen the film, I still think it is up to us Aspies to let our voices heard until the media can no longer ignore us. But, to be honest, the longer the film lasted the more I liked it, and the end brought me to tears.

I don't grasp some comments here. Firstly, the actors did do a great job in how they performed those tiny details, those "odd" ways us Aspies can react to signals or words around us.

Secondly, this may look like a cheesy romantic movie with two "neurodifferent" folks... But know that the film is based on a true story, and that they actually give a good impression of the two key characters.

Donald is shy, he is a control freak, he is however a mathematical genius who genuinely cares about other people.

Isabelle is the opposite: she just ignores all norms and rules and can have wild mood swings ranging from panic attacks to euphoria, but always spontaneous. They portrayed two people with the same diagnosis but with totally different characters, a pleasant surprise compared to the stereotypical "rain man" character. Both Donald and Isabelle are realistic representations of AS: the mathematical routine loving person, and the spontaneous person who gets herself in problems but always is well intending.

Thirdly, and maybe most important: I don't get the reaction of the people here with an Aspie child who felt the film was depressing. I would say it was hopeful. In the end you can see Donald blossom more and more because of Isabelle taking him into her own life at full speed, while she in the end more and more shows the sensitive side when she can no longer ignore her feelings for Donald. The fact they overcame a lot of obstacles but ended up as a happily married couple, how can this be depressing rather than hopeful?

Of course this was a sometimes cheesy Hollywood production with a predictable happy ending. But this one at least has proven to have done excellent casting; the actors were truly excellent. The story was based upon a real story, but well adapted into the present time. The eccentric sides of the characters were sometimes focussed on, but truly, I'd say a girl like Isabelle is charming just because of her "dance like nobody's watching" attitude. The fact Donald excels in his new job and that their love has overcome their problems, is a very positive undertone without denying the problems we often go through.

May I ask why some worry about their diagnosed child after seeing this film? Does someone need to be "normal" that badly? Do you think people in the autism spectrum have nothing but bleak depressive futures ahead?

Let me tell you: I have lived on my own for 10 years now and have lived in 7 different countries. I have always managed to do my job well, and while my friends are also on the eccentric side I am not an isolated person. I write poetry and love performing, in front of other people. And I'm still full of plans.

Above all, let me tell you this: I have AS. And I am proud of it. The whole world may know it, it's no secret. I'm autistic and I am proud. If there was a cure, I wouldn't want it. Because despite the obstacles and the intensities of Aspie life, I accepted myself and wouldn't want it any other way. As long as they believe in themselves and don't believe the idea that autism hinders you in your entire life, a person with AS can live a very exciting and vibrant life and become a very intellectual, loving person. We are neurodifferent yes, but what is "normal" anyway? Most fellow Aspies I met were people with problems but once you get to know them, you can't wish for more intellectual and friendly people to hang out with.
Peacebringer said…
It was the anniversary of valentine's day. :-) works for me, as a NT with an AS husband.
Anonymous said…
Happy anniversary of last valentine's day works for me as a NT wife of an AS husband :-)
Anonymous said…
I found it spot on. Its to try to show people, how truely difficult life is everyday, struggling with all aspects. I too am a hairstylist, and have sound problems, and give me a bottle of wine and people think im insane. Its a movie i'd show people to explain im not crazy, i'm just me. Asperger's comes along with fear, depression, anxiety and not being able to cope with life situations as easily as those who don't struggle daily or hourly. There's a large spectrum theses two do a great job portraying where they are.
Anonymous said…
I agree with the person who found Isabelle seems more like a borderline personality. She was so over the top it was really irritating. If there are female aspies like that, I think they've been misdiagnosed. I was also kind of offended that that personality was applied to a female. I thought that a lack of self control was overplayed as well as the retarded voice mannerisms. Autistics are often retarded but not Aspies. They came off sounding like adults in a special Ed class. I guess Hollywood has to hit you in the face with an idea in order to sell seats.
Unknown said…
I had a similar conversation about this before somewhere else where I mentioned that it is impossible to play a character with autism who is relatable to everyone because autism is not a singular thing, it is a spectrum. Actors and writers have nothing else as a guideline other than the known common traits. I have autism myself and experience this a lot when watching movies/series that are related to autism, I can't relate to every person who has autism. In the film everyone in the group seemed to have moderate to heavy autism,which also isn't right,but like I said, it is not easy to play a role perfectly if you are forced to rely on unprecized guidelines like a spectrum.
Anonymous said…
I love your whole comment. I'm a woman with AS.

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