A BOY CALLED PO
Director: John Asher
Cast: Christopher Gorham, Julian Feder, Kaitlin Doubleday, Andrew Bowen, Sean Gunn, Caitlin Carmichael, Brian George, Fay Masterson, Bryan Batt
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and some language)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 9/1/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 31, 2017
It's a bit disconcerting to have a story about a boy with autism revolve around the concept of something akin to a ticking clock. A Boy Called Po is about a single father, struggling to raise his son, who is regressing into his mind, portrayed as short scenes of fantasy that are far more appealing to the boy than the confusion of the real world. The ticking clock of the plot is that Po (Julian Feder) will become trapped in the world of his mind, unless his father David (Christopher Gorham) can figure out how to help the boy.
Such solutions are not this simple, and autism itself is not as simplistic as it is presented here. One understands the need for drama and to make a mental condition as complicated as autism comprehensible for a large audience. No one should question the intentions of the filmmakers in regards to the latter goal. It's clear that screenwriter Colin Goldman and director John Asher want to help people understand autism, but it's equally clear that they have gone about that goal in a way that undermines their intentions.
David is raising Po (short—sort of—for Peter) on his own because his wife has died. Five months after his wife's death, David has trouble. He tries making healthier meals for Po, who always wants macaroni and cheese. David works a full-time job designing airplanes, but Po is routinely bullied in school, meaning regular trips to the school nurse and the principal's office, which takes David away from work enough times to make his boss give him dirty looks. The school thinks Po's condition has been worsening since his mother's death. Perhaps it's time for him to move to a school for children with special needs.
David is adamant that Po isn't getting worse, that special education will only hinder his son's learning, and that he can handle all of this. After all, Po has made a friend named Amelia (Caitlin Carmichael), a young girl who reads the dictionary and talks to Po like he's any other kid.
There are two stories being told here. The first is David's struggle to raise Po, despite his work and his inconsistent understanding of autism (In one scene, he explains how he has done the reading of all of the new studies, and in another, he thanks a therapist for finally explaining one of the most basic symptoms of autism). It's presented with eye toward realism, although that angle doesn't work when every component of it is as formulaic and clichéd as it is here.
There's David's juggling of his professional and personal lives. There's the deadline at the office (where David even has a comic-relief co-worker, played by Sean Gunn).
There are scenes in which David is accused of abusing Po, on account of all the bruises the boy has received from his bullies, whom the school administrators simply ignore for some reason. Those scenes are especially pointless, except to bring in Bill (Brian George), a social worker who unofficially recommends that David look into an assisted-living facility for Po before his condition is beyond help. There is, naturally, a love interest, too, in the form of Amy (Kaitlin Doubleday), one of Po's therapists. She exists here because a romantic subplot is a requirement whenever a story involves a single father.
The second story is Po's experience of the world, which often turns into pure fantasy. His "escapes" into his mind include adventures with a pirate, helping a knight lost in the forest, and being recruited for a trip into space (The various roles here are represented by Jack, played by Andrew Bowen, who, in the real world, is the school's janitor).
Feder keenly performs the role, but one will notice that Asher has the actor play Po without the physical displays of autism during the fantasy sequences. The implication is strange—as if the movie is saying that there's a "normal" Po trapped somewhere within the boy's mind. The choice is a two-way one: It's obviously trying to help an audience understand that there is a person beneath the condition (which seems—sadly, given the stigma of mental and developmental conditions—an unnecessary point to make), but it also, perhaps unintentionally, suggests that the "real" Po could be recovered somehow.
All of this amounts to a movie that's alternately trite in terms of narrative and, on occasion, problematic in terms of its depiction of autism. There's no denying that A Boy Called Po has the best intentions at heart, but those only get a movie so far.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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