Jerry Rothwell brings Higashida Naoki’s groundbreaking book to the screen with a palpable sense of what it means to be neurodivergent.
In 2007, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Higashida Naoki — with the help of the alphabet board his mother created to help her son communicate his thoughts — built a desperately needed bridge between a nonspeaking autistic mind and the neurotypical world that has long struggled to understand them and too often neglected to try. The bridge assumed the form of a book titled “The Reason I Jump,” and, like all bridges, it called attention to the gaps that it was hoping to cross: The gap between what Higashida thinks and what he’s able to convey; the gap between a nonspeaking autistic child and their parents; the gap between reductive misconceptions about the autism spectrum and the infinite constellation of human experience that such a spectrum actually represents.
Higashida didn’t intend for his story to be representative of the entire spectrum, or even reflect the experience of anyone else, but he hoped that explaining what goes on in his own mind would help to forge a compassionate new understanding between the neurotypical and neurodivergent communities. If Jerry Rothwell’s film version of “The Reason I Jump” is far more effective and self-possessed than most documentary adaptations of “memoirs” tend to be, that’s largely because it sees Higashida’s book as a lens instead of as a subject, and refracts various other people through it in recognition of the rare tale that’s less important than how it’s translated.
Of course, this sincere facsimile of Higashida’s POV also exposes its own limitations, and reinforces the difficulties of conveying an experience that can never truly be shared. An even more extreme aesthetic akin to that of a movie from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab may only have made that disparity seem more pronounced, as the veneer of verisimilitude would likely have served to underline all that was lost in translation. For all that Joss’ parents can extrapolate about his experience, their greatest wish is still to understand what it’s really like for him, if only for a few minutes.
By opting for a measured and more humble approach, “The Reason I Jump” solidifies as less of an instructive solution than an empathetic work of encouragement. Rothwell recognizes that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that assuming things about the inner lives of people who can’t express themselves can lead to grave inhumanities. Without making sweeping pronouncements or presenting nonspeaking autistic people with too much of the semi-mystical flourish that led some critics to dismiss Higashida’s book out of hand, this lovely doc leaves us with only one certainty: Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean there isn’t a good explanation for it.
“The Reason I Jump” will be available to watch in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee beginning on Friday, January 8.
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