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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mozart and the Whale: The movie

Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story? I was initially skeptical — definitely intrigued, but still skeptical. The premise sounded too sentimental. It was going to be a chick flick, I figured. It was going to be what my friend Meryl calls “heartwarming,” it was going to be mushy. But it turned out to be none of those things (except, perhaps, heartwarming).

The subtitle correctly prepares the viewer to expect two protagonists with Asperger’s Syndrome. But almost all the other characters as well were living with Asperger’s (or other forms of autism). And what I definitely hadn’t realized was that the movie is a semi-documentary, a fictionalized account of the lives of two real people: Jerry Newport and Mary Meinel-Newport. But even before I learned that, I knew that I had to see this movie, since some of my students have Asperger’s and since one of my ten favorite books is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Definitely go see Mozart and the Whale for an unforgettable experience that is truly sympathetic without being at all sentimentalized!

What makes this a successful movie is the melding of the demands of fiction with the demands of a documentary. To meet the former, Norwegian director Petter Naess has emphasized a strongly traditional story arc with well-developed characters and plausible conflicts. To meet the latter, the film sets its diverse but self-aware characters firmly in the real world, with jobs and homes and even friends. The diversity is especially important, at least from my point of view. Over my career I’ve taught over a dozen students with Asperger’s, and I’ve worked with more than a few in the software industry; they all defy stereotypes, since no two are alike. The only aspect of the movie that rang a false note to my math-teacher’s mind was the inappropriate male-female ratio. In Mozart and the Whale almost half of those with Asperger’s are female, whereas in reality only 20–25% are. But Barbara reminds me that the movie does not show a random sample, but only those who volunteered to participate in a group; even among people with Asperger’s, society surely pushes females to be more sociable and more willing to participate in groups. (I’m dimly convinced that this is somehow related to the issues I discussed yesterday in my post about girls and math, but I haven’t yet worked out just how.)

You’ll have to see the movie to find out where the title comes from.

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