Turning what might have been an "illness of the week" tragedy into an affecting, entertaining entry for arthouse patrons, director Marc Evans
, working from Angela Pell's screenplay, pulls it off in a small-scale way but with emotional sensitivity and a solid cast with particular appeal to the increasing numbers of people who have personal experience with autism.
Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire
), a young hitchhiker with more spirit than fear, enters a restaurant, scans it, and picks a man sitting alone to delight with her company. Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman
), a laconic Englishman, barely tolerates the intrusion on his quiet privacy with a gabby adolescent and, after displaying what is, for him, considerable patience, rejects her suggestion to ride with him. He leaves, as alone as when he came in, and drives off. Article continues below
But, when he sees her thumbing for a ride out on the highway, for inexplicable reasons, he relents and offers her a ride. Delighted by the turn of events, she probes him until she understands he's not digging it. But, as she adapts to his reticence she is also having an effect on him. One can't help being subdued by an animated, endearing personality, not even this stiff gentleman. All the more painful that, just when he begins to enjoy her company, having stopped for a little shopping at her request, a truck plows into them as they reenter the highway, rolling Alex's car over and killing her instantly.
From this point of tragedy, the story is about the profound affect it has on him and his need to express his grief. In order to do this, he obtains the girl's mother's address from non-cooperative police, and lands on Linda Freeman's (Sigourney Weaver
) doorstep with Vivienne's possessions and a heart full of pain. But, what he finds is beyond expectation. Linda acts and talks strangely, as though she's an alien from another planet, with a behavior pattern that could be described as ant-social, emotionally indifferent, mulish, and intransigent.
What we and Alex will soon learn is that Linda is autistic.
The creators of this piece went to great lengths to study adult autism. Weaver undertakes a great effort to express the non sequitur thinking and obssessive orderliness that characterizes the syndrome. Rickman, who by now has convinced us of an unusual capacity for empathy, brings out his character's sensitive understanding by adapting to the often taxing demands of his new friend.
Next door to Linda lives Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss
), an unmarried woman Linda describes as a prostitute (for totally unsubstantiated reasons) and won't allow the well-meaning neighbor into her home -- let alone allow her to help her in any way despite Maggie's offers. Alex, en route to deal with his own problems, negotiates an understanding with Linda to remain long enough to help with the funeral.
Small town life mixes tragedy with humor and irony, and it will appeal to thoughtful audiences on a gut level. Those who have experienced autism in their lives will revel in the fact that another film with a few major players has given it new exposure -- so long after Tom Cruise
and Dustin Hoffman
's 1988 hit Rain Man.
While Weaver captures the speech patterns of typical autism, it often sounds flat and learned by rote, though this isn't too far from one characteristic of autism (which I say from my own experience). Her portrayal of a mixed-up thread of thoughts and actions will seem familiar enough to anyone who has had contact with those who suffer the disorder. But, while much study and education about it is evident from all involved, it's not going to break any attendance or DVD sales records.
If acting were a contest, Rickman wins. He's superb in his less than effusive British way, always a singular presence, always more than dependable, as we've seen in far different contexts, such as his Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. Here, he makes such an impression as a reticent, funny humanist on the road that you may pine for a sequel about his further adventures when it's over.
All else aside, the film is a worthy effort toward bringing an increasingly prevalent disorder to filmgoers' attention, and that should not go unsaid. The understanding to be derived from this drama (and from Weaver's studied work) will serve well in an encounter with an autistic person.