Film Review: A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism

Appealing documentary about autism is hurt by some aspects of its storytelling.

Often, social-science documentaries have a built-in audience, but A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism could reach a wider audience if properly promoted. The flaws of the film aside, this exploration of a little-discussed, little-understood topic is generally interesting.

A Mother’s Courage looks at autism from the point of view of the parents who care for youngsters who are managing the condition. Primarily, the film focuses on Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir, producer of the project, who has a ten-year-old son (Keli) with autism and decides to research all she can about causes and treatments. She travels from her home in Iceland to visit a few other parents and several experts in the field in both Europe and the U.S. Among those she interviews are Dr. David Amaral of the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders; Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge; Soma Mukhopadhyay, the inventor of the Rapid Prompting Method; and Dr. Temple Grandin, animal scientist and autism advocate.

Ericsdottir gains valuable information and learns about useful treatments, though, oddly, she doesn’t visit any of the scientists or advocates who warn against certain child vaccines and diet plans. In the end, Ericsdottir finds new hope for Keli’s future.

A Mother’s Courage is at its best when it is least “scientific.” In one remarkable sequence, Keli rides a carousel and through an innovative use of camerawork, editing and music, we get an impressionistic sense of what is like to be in the boy’s world. Another scene by a rocky cliff over the ocean reveals in intimate close-up Keli about to pass out and fall into the water while his mother, though standing next to him, appears oblivious to his needs; thankfully, a splash of a wave revives Keli in time, but the moment (however brief) vividly illustrates the perils of living with a lifelong condition and the endless possibilities of problems associated with it. (I might add that it was brave of producer Ericsdottir to not cut the sequence since it doesn’t show her in the best light.)

Ironically, A Mother’s Courage goes astray in the more straightforward documentary sequences. For some reason, never explained, Ericsdottir speaks very little on camera, allowing the experts to run on at length as she nods in agreement. This wouldn’t be so frustrating if the producer/heroine hadn’t employed Kate Winslet to supply her voice as narrator (sometimes speaking as Ericsdottir, sometimes as Winslet). Worse yet, director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson jumbles the narrative chronology by jumping back and forth between the different scenes in the different locations. While this is normal in most talking-head documentaries, in A Mother’s Courage the effect is confusing and we get little sense of Ericsdottir’s developing knowledge as her personal story moves along.

Could it be that A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism would have been a more effective film had it been a fictional drama? The best parts seem to suggest that.