This is your “main man” speaking (watch the movie and you will understand), and welcome to our first movie review. I’m sure most of you would have already watched this 1988 American classic, and for you guys, I will attempt to write a review that will provide a psychological analysis. As for those who haven’t watched it, well, let this be an introductory guide to the film (don’t worry, no spoilers here…. not).
But Charlie’s life was changed entirely when he heard that his father, with whom he had never established contact with since he ran away from home when he was very young, has died. And so, he and his girlfriend went to Cincinnati, Ohio, to settle and acquire his father’s will. What Charlie found to his absolute astonishment was that his father has only left behind his house and car for him, and all the money ($3 million!) has been transferred to a mental institution as a trust fund. And so, Charlie went to the mental institution, and again, he was shocked to find that there was a man named Raymond, who was actually his older brother, which he was previously unaware of! And it was Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) that inherited their father’s money. So, Charlie went on to “kidnap” his brother, with the aim to gain back what was “rightfully” his, the bulk of the will’s money, in order to escape his tight financial situation. And thus begins the age old, “buddy-on-the-road” movie, where they will experience adventures and gain insight into each other, that will transform each other’s lives.
But (and this is a big BUT) there is a catch. Raymond was not someone who you will call a typical “buddy”. In fact, Raymond did not even have the ability to make friends with others. Why? Because he was a man with a well known neurodevelopmental disorder, called “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD).
First of all, what is autism? Autism spectrum disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a disorder that predominantly manifests in a person’s incapability to communicate and socialize “normally” with others, with the addition to render an autistic person with “repetitive, restricted, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities”. What this basically means is that an autistic person will be unable to establish social interactions with others (such as playing with other children), to communicate even their basic needs with others, and they will become very intensely focused with their own activities and perform repetitive behaviors (such as adhering to a strict routine), stereotyped motor movements (such as rocking their bodies, flapping their hands, banging their heads), to the exclusion of everything else; and when someone tries to stop their behaviors or activities, they will grow extremely uncomfortable and will even engage in extreme emotional outbursts. And this is severe in that it is often a lifelong condition, with no-known cures, and unknown causes.
However, what the word “spectrum” in the term means is that the disorder runs along a dimensional spectrum, with “low functioning autism” at one end, and “high functioning autism” at the other (the most commonly associated disorder with the high functioning end is “Asperger’s Syndrome”). And Raymond, despite all his deficiencies and disabilities, is a high functioning autistic savant. This, to put it in layman’s terms, is to say that Raymond will display outstanding skills and abilities in a particular field even without practice, and the communication and social disabilities is not as severe as those on the low functioning end (in Raymond’s case it is mathematical and memory capabilities, which the movie portrays in an extraordinarily uncanny and yet moving way).
But what makes individuals with autism particularly frustrating for others (especially close relatives and friends) is that they seem to have no particular interest in forming relationships with others. They can’t understand social or communication norms. They have peculiar or bizzare communication patterns (such as repeating certain terms or words in a sentence, or mimicking another’s verbal or vocal pronunciations in an endless loop without knowing the meaning, known as “echolalia”). They don’t look at you when they speak. They can’t express emotions in ways a “normal” person can. They adhere to a strict (some even say “ritualistic”) schedule or routine. In short, they seem to act and behave in ways that resemble an “automaton”. (In one of the most fascinating case studies I have read about autism spectrum disorder, Oliver Sacks describes a famous autistic individual, Temple Grandin, as having said that she felt as if she was “an anthropologist on Mars”, because she felt so estranged and bewildered by “normal” social rules and emotions. I will write a review of the book in the near future to provide a more in-depth analysis.)
The movie never shies away from the ultimate frustration and disturbance of a person who tries to get close to another autistic individual, as in the movie, Charlie’s anger and frustration culminates in one scene where he roared towards Raymond, “I think this autism is a bunch of shit! ‘Cause you can’t tell me that you’re not in there somewhere!”
And yet the movie itself portrays the autistic Raymond in such a poignant way, that you can’t help but feel a closeness towards him. One thing to note and praise the film is that it doesn’t try to make Raymond’s situation sympathetic or impose a certain form of our superiority towards autistic individuals. To feel pity and sympathy towards another is often times rooted in a sense of condescension towards the one being pitied. But to feel a feeling of tenderness and even love towards another, that is compassion. Yet, the movie succeeds in evoking this transcendent feeling of compassion towards a fictional character, now that is true achievement! The movie doesn’t provide a sentimental, but ultimately unrealistic picture of Raymond’s disorder. It doesn’t romanticize the whole issue at hand, it isn’t cheesy with its conclusions. It supplies endless amounts of questions, such as “what makes us human?”, “how does a man who has a predisposition to not change and adapt to the situation, survive in a constantly changing environment?” And yet, the movie smartly never attempts to answer any of those questions, and left it hanging on an ambiguous, but ultimately satisfying note. Dustin Hoffman never portrays Raymond as cute and adorable, and is frank and realistic with the actions and behaviors of an autistic individual.
Even Charlie, who was a self-serving, absolutely despicable selfish yuppie cannot help but undertake a personal transformation during the entire process of the movie. There are no spiritual revelations or sudden inspirations. There is only this natural and subtle shift of his own perspective, where he learned how to care, how to love, and how to change for the better. But I think the most profound aspect of this whole movie is in the portrayal of Raymond. Movies are about changes, where an event happens, leading to an underlying shift of time, space, and character, and the characters in it moves toward a conclusion throughout the entire event, where they arise differently at the end then when they are from the start of a film. But in this film, everyone changes. Except for Raymond. In fact, the way I see it, Raymond doesn’t even know about the necessity or importance of change.
Even though the film propagates and creates a common misconception that autistic individuals often have savant skills (they don’t, some never acquire it) — and there is one scene in the film in which Charlie makes use of Raymond’s savantism for his own gains that made me especially uncomfortable — this film is a very moving and touching film in that it celebrates our shared humanity, despite our difficulties and differences and disabilities. Most of all, it cherishes the virtue of acceptance, whether it is of fate or of each other.
And in the end, we may come to the realization, that all of us, be it “disabled” or not, are not so different from one another at all. After all, all of us has one thing or another to teach each other.
For some information on Autism Spectrum Disorder:
1. A video on the symptoms of ASD http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbXjW-cX9kQ
2. The American Psychiatric Association Fact Sheet on ASD
3. I suggest you all to buy Oliver Sacks books “An Anthropologist on Mars” or “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”, as he provides moving and phenomenological accounts on autistic individuals and on some autistic savants. 🙂