Hunting the Whale by Zephyr Ash Ostrowski

“In the quiet I need you. I think I hear you laugh.

And in the crowds I see you, a face I know by heart.

Don’t go now, stay close, be with me.”

-Philip Selway, “Don’t Go Now”

“Will you help me mix the colors into a perfect crimson blend?

Will you be my only lover? Will you be there in the end?”

-Tym DeSanto, “The End”, featured on the autism benefit compilation “A Reverent Cat in a Dog’s World”

Romance films, depending on which circles you’re in, tend to get a bad rap. There are some all-time classics like West Side Story, City Lights, and Titanic, as well as contemporary hits like Love, Simon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Her, and then you have stuff that ranges into Nicholas Sparks fodder (pick any one, you know the joke about the marketing for his work) and lower. The worst kind of romance films aren’t necessarily the ones that lack any kind of chemistry but rather the ones where the relationship is toxic to the point that some serious intervention is needed and the film just pretends it’s normal or “quirky”. It’s especially troublesome when one or two of the romantic figures have some form of mental illness and it veers into inspiration porn.

Initially, I was going to discuss Benny & Joon and how it handles the interaction between mental illness and romance. I changed my mind because I wasn’t keen on discussing Yet Another Weirdo Depp film, even if it is one of his lesser films in his career. Instead, there was a bigger fish to hunt, one that has certainly been a blight in the autism community.

Mozart and the Whale has an interesting pedigree. The original couple, Jerry Newport and Mary Meinel, first met at a Halloween party in 1993. Jerry was dressed as a whale and Mary as Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s older and equally talented sister. They dated for a while and were engaged in late April 1994. However, things soured and they separated in 1999, only to reunite in 2001. During their first marriage, the LA Times published an article about their relationship, focusing on how both of them “had Asperger syndrome” (as was the case before the DSM 5 removed that term). This story was so fascinating that Hollywood called for the story rights. Steven Spielberg was attached to direct with Robin Williams as Jerry and Ronald Bass, Oscar winner for the Rain Man script, would pen the script for the film. The meeting didn’t go off as well as intended and so the script languished in development hell for a while. Ron helped contribute to Mary’s new home in 1997 and then the script was picked up in the early 2000’s, complete with a brief conversation between Jerry and the actor who would portray him in the film, Josh Hartnett (and then would play Charlie Babbitt in a stage version of Rain Man a few years later). The film was released in 2005 but was direct-to-video in the United States in 2006. The book of the same name was published in 2007.

Now, odds are that those who are remotely familiar with “Mozart and the Whale” will think of the movie first before the book. The thing is, after reading the book, it dawns on you that what you saw barely resembled the actual events. Yes, the film includes the “this is a work of fiction” legalese but also adds that it’s “inspired” by two real individuals. The result is a far cry from the rich lives of Jerry and Mary to the point that it’s like trying to fuse whale vertebrae with a human spinal column. We’re talking about the complete erasure of certain people and adding things that were patently false. The crux of the film is focused on the initial meeting of Jerry and Mary, or, as they’re referred to in the film, “Donald” and “Isabelle”, and how they come to know each other. That’s the most accurate summary I can provide because nearly everything else is pure fiction, save for some odd details.

We start with Donald driving some clients in a taxi. The first clue that we’re given that Something’s Off is his infodumping on the various streets and taxi companies. We even see what he “sees”, a mental map of the city (literally one of two times this visualization ever used in the film) in what’s basically a prototype for the thought processes of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Donald ends up crashing into a flower van, collects his groceries, and leaves the scene to go to the support group. It’s there we see them infodump about various things with stilted and flat affect, just to give the audience a look into how these people socialize, like a perverse anthropologist.

Donald rattles off some prime factorization in front of the microwave. While it does show him engaging in numbers, it also shows how distracted he can be when not operating a vehicle. He notices that there’s a new name on the sign-in sheet and gets excited. He also announces that today’s meeting will focus on telling personal stories. Outside, Donald recalls of a time as a kid when people would treat him as a novelty for his math skills. On the other side, Isabelle is nonplussed by the group and channels some of Helena Bonham’s character in Fight Club with the sunglasses and cigarettes. Her personal story? It starts off about her literally breaking records and having the neighborhood kids laugh at her. It all goes south when she talks about when she was 14 and ran away from home. She gets picked up by a random driver and is then raped, with some of the group members reacting inappropriately to this story.

Now, let’s not make light of this scenario. People with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, especially women. Isabelle clearly falls into that statistic. There’s just one problem, though. Nowhere in the Mozart and the Whale book does “rape” appear. Yes, Mary did lose her virginity around that time when hitching a ride but the vocabulary commonly used in experiences of rape and sexual assault are not there. There is one conclusion that can be made: Ron Bass added the rape for dramatic purposes. The rape is only brought up one other time when Donald tells her that it’s not something to be laughed at and Isabelle tells him that it took some guts for him to say that. The bar for humanity in this universe is set so low that this is seen as one of the most human moments when it’s just plain obvious.

You have every right to be mad as hell about this. For starters, the script comes from someone who won an Oscar. Not just that but said Oscar was for a film about autism. The time between Rain Man and Mozart and the Whale spans well over a decade and so one would think that a more nuanced handling about autism and its depiction would be apparent. Nope. In the commentary provided on the DVD (the only bonus feature, I might add), Ron doesn’t understand the concept of audio commentary so there are long periods of silence and humanist generalizations about what it means to emote. You would think that with something as important as rape, he would explain his rationale behind it but we don’t get that.

So, we have our two lovebirds get to know each other. Their hangouts include a trip to the zoo where Isabelle tries to be a Dr. Doolittle and talk to the animals. It’s supposed to be humorous because she stepped over the boundary and is doing what the monkey does, trying to establish some kind of Temple Grandin bond but it’s just seen as obnoxious and leans more into the “free-spirited” type of personality found in some romances that suit the male lead. Other dates include the critical Halloween party, albeit with a timeline shift to better fit the narrative and with Isabelle as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart instead of his lesser known sister as stated in the book. Another date is a trip to the carnival where we see Donald factor primes thanks to some cheap animation and the one quintessential scene of the Autism Film: the public meltdown scene. Donald tosses some metal rings and the sound is too much for Isabelle to handle. She crumples to the ground while everyone stares.

At one point, Donald takes her back to his apartment of squalor and she’s not fazed by it. Her mind is focused on something else: sex. I brought this up in my Twin Rainbows article on how autism and sexuality is treated on screen. This film is one of the few that has autism/autism relationships that include sex. Now, there is a brief bit of dialogue where Donald tries to dance around the fact that his anatomy isn’t as large as the average person (sadly one of the truths about the actual person that Ron Bass decided to keep in, showing how selective he is in being “inspired”). The two of them hold hands and the camera pans up to the birds before fading to black. Again, while this moment did happen, the timeline was shifted for the sake of the film. Problem is, the first instance in their lives, sex didn’t happen; rather, it was laying naked in bed and just being there with each other (totally fine). And the framing of this scene doesn’t help either because it takes this serious moment and transforms them into Innocents Experiencing Carnal Pleasure because of what they are. What’s more, the original couple were in their upper 30’s when they first made love, not these twentysomethings. It’s gross and immature because these are adults, not some Romeo and Juliet teenage romance.

While their relationship grows, discontent grows within the group as one guy, Gregory, accuses Donald of exploiting his position for sexual favors. Unfortunately, I’ve borne witness to that once upon a time and left the support group. Donald tries to explain that he’s getting to know her better and that it’s natural. It’s also worthy to mention that this Gregory repeatedly mentions that he wants to be with Isabelle, seeing her more as a possession than a person. This viewpoint of object over person is carried throughout his scenes. Could it be that some of his social skills are stunted? Yes, but it’s still not a sympathetic look. Incidentally, Gregory’s actor, John Carroll Lynch, has a previous autism film credit in the critically panned thriller Mercury Rising.

The tables turn on Donald because now he gets his meltdown scene. While he’s out shopping, Isabelle decides to clean up his apartment. When he returns, he panics and yells at Isabelle. Now, in reality, a proper landlord would have notified Donald about his living conditions because of apartment inspections and that some serious action would need to take place or else he’d be evicted. It’s also worth noting that having executive functioning issues isn’t uncommon in autistic people and you can safely make the assumption that’s part of Donald’s autism. However, when it gets to that level of filth and there are multiple animals involved, it’s a miracle that someone hasn’t complained. Of course, the two of them get back together after he apologizes at Isabelle’s workplace. We’re roughly halfway through the film so them being separated won’t fly.

Isabelle talks to Donald about buying a house so that the two of them can move in together. That and her therapist can hook Donald up with a university job involving numbers. This all seems a little too fast, especially since they’re only a few weeks into their relationship. And even then, it’d make more sense for one of them to move in with the other’s space. Buying a house is a serious effort and isn’t something one can impulsively buy. Nevertheless, it happens and we have a “Gee Whiz Isn’t Life Swell When You’re in Love?” montage. We do get a small scene of the interview and, in an effort to stand for something, Donald objects to the use of “special needs” in describing him, mentioning that the guy could’ve just said “autistic”. The sentiment still rings true today, especially when autistic adults still have to fight to be heard over those who want to speak for them. However, Ron Bass delivers this truth too late.

The romantic bliss runs dry as we’re given the old sitcom plot of the boss coming over for dinner and shenanigans ensue. Because you know that they’re both autistic, you can expect some Wacky Hijinks. Unfortunately, Donald is realizing that they’re living well beyond their means and Isabelle can’t see that. The dinner is par for the course with the old scenario, complete with the frantic conversational tangents and wildlife intervening. The pressure gets to be too much and he explodes. This proves to be the final straw in the relationship and Isabelle throws him out.

Donald moves in with Gregory after the break-up and it’s clear that he’s not over Isabelle. He’s listened to her voicemail multiple times despite Isabelle saying to delete it after a certain number of plays. Gregory reassures Donald that he won’t date her as a sign of respect. The support group he leads tries his best to cheer him up by suggesting a whale watch tour but he’s not interested. Donald walks away and the camera lingers on an overhead shot of our ragtag group of oddballs with one hand raised in the air in the middle of a park, not looking too out of place for a Syd Barrett tribute album. Gregory even tells Donald that “compared to us, you’re a god” which, let’s be clear, is a very bad line of dialogue. It could easily be rewritten to convey that there’s a certain level of respect for Donald but immediately deigning him a god is ludicrous. Too bad it only gets worse from here.

Isabelle’s rabbit dies and she calls Donald about it. This is really the first time they’ve met since the breakup but Donald has other ideas. He later takes Isabelle to a fancy restaurant in an effort to propose. This doesn’t sit well as she freaks out and, understandably, yells at him for not understanding what “just friends” means. She storms off back to the house and overdoses on pills. Sadly, it’s not unusual for autistic people to attempt suicide thanks to poor mental health resources and societal views towards the disabled. Donald finds her body and calls the medics.

The film’s treatment of mental health gets worse as the nurse dispatches Isabelle after her suicide attempt. At the very least, said person should be held for at least 72 hours for a thorough examination. Instead, the nurse tells Donald that he’s not allowed to make any further contact with Isabelle for the sake of her health, essentially a verbal restraining order. Any sensible person would accept that fact and respect those wishes. However, there’s still less than fifteen minutes left in this romcom and The Law says that Love Conquers All Things, even mental illness. Donald manages to track Isabelle at the local university in an off-kilter tribute to The Graduate and then to an abandoned rooftop space where they’ve met before. Isabelle mentions that she was worried that he would never see her again and they get back together, celebrating Thanksgiving with the support group.

Now, the film does not exactly have a positive reception in the autism community since so much of it is rooted in stereotypes and that it’s another film where neurotypical people dictate the narrative instead of autistic people. In the fourteen years or so since the film’s release, there has been marginal improvement. 2019 has barely begun but television has lauded casting Wrong Planet creator Alex Plank in an autistic role in ABC’s “The Good Doctor” (where the autistic main character is played by a neurotypical). On the other end, Alex Oates has come under fire for his play “All In a Row” where the only autistic character is played by a puppet that looks like it was forged in the depths of hell, as well as trying to promote said play on Twitter with articles involving the murder of autistic people, insisting that this play will provide a sensitive portrayal because he was a carer for over ten years and therefore is Qualified to Talk About Us, and then trying to deflect every piece of criticism autistic people made on Twitter. This leads to the conclusion that the only people qualified to tell a story about autism are autistic people.

As much as people don’t like it, I say it’s deserving of a remake. By sticking close to the book, we could see a strong limited series because it’s a far richer and honest account than what the film gives us. Besides, the film completely omits the fact that Mary had two full-grown sons when she met Jerry, that she was also a member of the Children of God cult, Jerry’s struggles with college life, abusive relationships, their varied childhood experiences where family life was offbeat and so much more. Even then, it’d be a great period piece about autism in the 60’s and beyond. We’re sort of getting that already as Paramount has optioned to do a film on Steve Silberman’s tome Neurotribes. Just hire some autistic crew members and the remake can really be something remarkable. The odds of having this miracle happening, though, are rather slim if you just look at the landscape.

I cannot stress enough that this is a bad film. There is nothing redeemable about any aspect of this and how far it is from the reality of the source material, as well as the handling of all the characters involved, is an insult to responsible storytelling. The fact that the bar is set so low for autism representation, we’re supposed to be happy that we’re even represented at all, despite our prevalence in the population. The odds are more than likely that you’ve met someone like us and if you have, you’ll notice that we do have emotions. We definitely know the world is not a friendly place but we’re trying our best to make it one. At the very least we can have some decent pieces of fiction because Mozart and the Whale is not one of them.

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