The Reason I Jump transports the audience into the minds of its subjects, a film flooded with warmth and compassion.
The documentary, screening at SIFF starting this Friday, is based on the novel of the same name by Naoki Higashida and follows a group of five non-speaking autistic young people. Higashida is not in the film, but his words are read throughout as he expresses how there's a greater need to learn from those who, like himself, are autistic.
"Non-speaking" does not mean "non-verbal," as that would mean "without words." The young people in this documentary often have much to say, even without using speech to communicate. To say any less would devalue their perspectives.
For example, there is Amrit, who creates art as a means of expression. There is Ben, who communicates by spelling out his thoughts and expresses occasional annoyance with his sister, Emma, who is also autistic. It's a funny annoyance, something all siblings experience, and serves to delicately expose audiences to their respective worlds that are not unlike our own. These worlds spread from Noida, India, to Arlington, Virginia.
The documentary often shows that the most significant thing holding back people with autism is not themselves but societal acceptance. Like David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas and translator of Higashida's book, observes: "Neurotypicals are rubbish at understanding what is not neurotypical." And as the parents in the film echo: The biggest threat facing their children is abandonment by society.
If the documentary has any flaw, it's that it can't devote enough time to each story, all of which deserve and demand more attention. The documentary regrettably moves rather quickly, losing many experiences in its hustle. If there were a more extended edit or even a prolonged series, that would be worth watching.
Still, this is a minor hangup. I love how the documentary can show how its subjects experience sensation—from the crackling of electricity in the air to the flowing of water. The documentary makes use of the combination of sound and visual to create a dreamlike experience.
With that beauty also comes darkness. The young subjects are often taken by intense feelings of distress and anxiety that can be overwhelming. The Reason I Jump doesn't demonize or gawk at these moments; it instead observes and works to bridge the understanding gap. These observations take on a poetic quality when synthesized with Higashida's words, which speak to the vibrant joy accessible to everyone, whether or not they are autistic.
Brimming with empathy that is first and foremost compassionate, The Reason I Jump is a story of grace and struggle. It is often messy, but it offers a genuine understanding and a textbook example of how cinema can be a machine for empathy.
You can stream The Reason I Jump via the Virtual SIFF Cinema starting Friday, January 8.