Film Review: Wretches & Jabberers

Questionable treatment hurts otherwise important documentary on autism.

Wretches & Jabberers, the off-putting title of this documentary about two middle-aged men with autism who educate others about their condition, does an admirable job covering the men’s mission but emphasizes their traveling and presentations at the expense of some other, more gripping issues.

Both hailing from Vermont, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher advocate for people with autism across the globe: Japan, Sri Lanka, Finland, as well as the United States. Since they have difficulty speaking, and being understood, the duo, with the help of assistants Pascal Cheng and Harvey Levoy, type their thoughts on a specially designed keyboard so their their words appear on a computer screen that can be projected for the audience to read.

The good news about Wretches & Jabberers is that director Geraldine Wurzburg is both careful with and respectful of her subjects. She focuses on the men (and a few others with autism) as opposed to their parents, who were the center of attention in another recent doc, A Mother’s Courage. The camerawork and editing are above average.

The bad news about Wretches & Jabberers is that, once the film establishes the significance of Bissonnette and Thresher’s work, it has little else to offer. Wurzburg could have delved further into the men’s backgrounds (quite impressive and inspirational stories) or even the tragic history of people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Discrimination is addressed but not represented in any dramatic way. For whatever reason, the director wants to remain in the upbeat present.

Stylistically speaking, Wurzburg does the best she can with Bissonnette, Thresher, and others typing on their computers, but the many scenes involving this action become repetitive and dull. (This is not the first film to try but fail to make writing or typing an exciting on-screen activity.) More annoying still, J. Ralph’s musical score is excessive, cueing moods and feelings as if the doc were a melodrama—syrupy violins one moment, cheerful kettle drums the next, a bland rock-folk song interrupting a conversation. (Big names on the soundtrack, including Norah Jones and Scarlett Johannson, do not prove to be a plus.)

Wretches & Jabberers misses an opportunity to be a much better movie than it is but it also may have harmed its chances of being seen by a larger audience, which it probably should be.