‘The Reason I Jump” opens with a small boy wandering wordlessly through a vast seaside of overpowering sensory input: huge beams of circling light, waves crashing in infinitely intricate rhythms.
Alone and mute in this intensely sensory world, the boy’s journey serves as a metaphor for the childhood of Naoki Higashida, a nonspeaking autistic man – one of many autistic people whose experience has cut them off from society’s respect and understanding.
After an early childhood in which Naoki was unable to communicate, at the age of 13 he wrote a book – the 2007 bestseller “The Reason I Jump” – about what it’s like for him to be in the world as an autistic person. Translated in 2013 by novelist David Mitchell, the book has now inspired a film, directed by Jerry Rothwell, that interweaves Naoki’s revelations with moments in the lives of five nonspeaking autistic young people.
An empathetic, hopeful, and audiovisually rich film, “The Reason I Jump” screens online through PMA Films, in cooperation with the Autism Society of Maine.
Rothwell braids Naoki’s words (voiced by Jordan O’Donegan) and the solitary travels of the boy (played by Jim Fujiwara) with the stories of autistic people with very present allies, who span several continents.
Joss, a young man who loves water and light, lives in England; Amrit creates remarkably sophisticated figural art to express her daily life in India. In Sierra Leone, Jestina revels in the sea, while Ben and Emma, in the U.S., have for 20 years nurtured an intimate friendship without speech and now, homeschooled by their families, have learned to communicate by pointing to letters on a chart.
We learn about them and their lives through the words of their parents and, more viscerally, through the film’s gently subjective cinematography and audio design. The primary experience conjured is sensory amplification, which sound designer Nick Ryan and director of photography Ruben Woodin Dechamps make lyrical and hypnotic. Familiar objects and phenomena become enthrallingly otherworldly.
When Joss puts his ear to an electrical utility box, we hear its inner workings as complex musical vibrations, over which Ryan then layers choral voices. In Amrit’s apartment, a seam of golden light on red carpet pulses and wanes as if alive; rain falls with polytonal chiming. We hear Naoki’s observation that when a color or light pleases him, “my heart kind of drowns in it,” and these renderings are indeed beautifully immersive.
Another aspect of an autistic person’s experience, according to the film, is that their sense of time is less rigid and sequential than that of a neurotypical person. “There’s not much of a difference between something someone told me now,” Naoki says, “and something someone told me a long time ago.”
The camera approximates this in one sequence by cutting back and forth as if in real time between teenage Joss and child Joss in the back of his father’s car, giving a visual understanding of how quickly and fully a memory might seem to be totally immediate and real.
Perhaps most compellingly, we also hear from some of the film’s subjects in their own words. Despite what was once believed about autistic people, it’s not their cognition that’s compromised; as one therapist explains, “Their brain knows what to do, but they can’t get it to their body.” And “The Reason I Jump” holds some startlingly powerful moments as Emma and Ben spell out what their brains want to say.
Asked about what public school used to be like for him, Ben calmly and patiently spells out: “They have denied our civil rights.”
The film gives a glimpse of even worse deprivations in Sierra Leone, when Jestina’s mother organizes a community meeting for autistic children and their parents. We hear about horrible social stigmas suffered: neighbors calling a child “the devil,” telling a mother to drown her daughter in the river. Shocking as this sounds to us now, it’s not too far a cry from the all-too-recent archival audio Rothwell plays for us of elite Western men talking about eugenics.
Ultimately, the grails of “The Reason I Jump” are communication and community. From Amrit’s art being warmly received in a public gallery to Jestina and other young people laughing together in a new school her parents start, the film shows us how better inclusion and understanding are possible for our neurodiverse world.
“I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation,” Ben spells out on his letter board.
And as it charts what these young people experience, “The Reason I Jump” moves with the same joyfully liberating spirit as Naoki does when he finds reason to jump: as a physical reaction to happiness, “like shaking loose the ropes that have been holding me down.”
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Theater at home and out
Feeling unrenewed by the new year? Perhaps you need some poetry, an espionage thriller, and/or a good sex farce.
Portland Stage Company soon presents all three at once: Liz Duffy Adams’ “Or,” imagines the hijinks of Aphra Behn, England’s first female playwright and, perhaps not coincidentally, also a spy. PSC presents a Winnipesaukee Playhouse production of the show from Jan. 29-Feb. 14, both live and streaming online. Tickets at https://www.portlandstage.org/.
And New Yorkers flail in the woods in a new Maine comedy by David Cary, “Upta the Willi-Wacks,” onstage through Jan. 30 at the Footlights Theatre. The three-person show is live only, in Falmouth. Go to https://www.thefootlightstheatre.com/.
— Megan Grumbling