Film Review: Dislecksia: The Movie

Dealing with an important subject, this doc has moments of genuine enlightenment but is nearly undone by aggressively sophomoric handling which is in itself a strangely unintended insult to its audience's intelligence.

Dyslexia, this documentary wants to make eminently clear, is not a learning disability, but a learning difference. Affecting some 35 million in this country alone, it remains a big mystery to most, from the very inception of the term in 1887 by Dr. Rudolph Berlin in Stuttgart, Germany. This breezy film by Harvey Hubbell V, himself a dyslexic, attempts to address many of the questions about it. There is good information to be found here, but Hubbell's cutesy-wutesy approach, with him always front and center, both as autobiographical diagnostic subject and camera-hogging filmmaker on an international quest for answers, is heavy-handed and off-putting. To get to the facts, one must plough through annoyingly fatuous and self-indulgent stuff like footage of various dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—mouthing the disapprovingly judgmental words of Hubbell's unsupportive teachers at the high school he was eternally flunking.

We do get to discover that scores of prominent people in the past (Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein) as well as the present (actors James Earl Jones and Joe Pantoliano, real estate diva Barbara Corcoran, lawyer David Boies, TV writer Stephen J. Cannell) all suffered from dyslexia. Billy Bob Thornton, who is actually in the Hall of Fame of the Learning Disabled, is the big interview “get" here, and looking uncannily young (and like a pirate, somehow), he is entertainingly enlightening, describing his troubled youth and the current ways he deals with his affliction when it comes to, say, reading or writing his scripts.

But the most absorbing interviews in Dislecksia: The Movie are those with the various doctors and educators who are really doing something about this problem, especially at the the Haskins Literacy Initiative, where a pair of dedicated female teachers reveal the joy of children actually learning to read through their applied methods. Hubbell happily doesn't stint on exposing much modern ignorance which still stands in the way of progress, such as what goes on in the state of Wisconsin, where dyslexia isn't even recognized as a legitimate ailment, so therefore cannot receive any government funding.

Hubbell has rounded up a truly impressive array of affected personalities who give a broad and diverse spectrum of this affliction, none more moving than teenage Jo'von Wright, whose teachers told her in the sixth grade that she would never go to college. With the loving support of a mother she describes as "a pit bull with lipstick," she graduated from high school with honors and is indeed off to university. But through it all, one must endure Hubbell's incessant mugging and Travel Channel fatuousness, as when he goes cartoonishly doltish as a doctor tries to explain the singular embryonic brain development which results in dyslexia. There's no doubt that his own personal story, forever being misdiagnosed—as so many are—as just plain dumb, is touching, but did he really have to insert Martin Luther King crying "Free at last!" as he describes finally leaving that dreaded high school?