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Review: Wretches and Jabberers

Documentary searches for the heart of autism
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  June 8, 2011
2.5 2.5 Stars

Imagine having as much inside you — thoughts, feelings, desires, needs — as you really do, but being unable to express them. Or worse, having others assume that because you can't say them, they don't exist. They assume your brain is void of intelligence in the first place. Imagine that frustration. Imagine feeling so caged.

If you're having trouble conjuring such impotence, watch how Vermonters Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette navigate such a life at home and abroad. The central characters of a new documentary from Academy Award-winning director Gerardine Wurzberg, Tracy (an advocate) and Larry (an artist) could be trapped in their bodies — and sometimes they are. But more often, they live life to the fullest, giving eloquent voice to an often misunderstood disability.

Tracy and Larry both have autism, a developmental disorder that affects how nerve cells and synapses connect and organize, resulting in communication difficulties, social impairment, and restricted and repetitive physical behaviors. Both men were assumed to be mentally retarded as children and young adults and were isolated as a result; it wasn't until they learned to "speak" by typing that their innate intelligence, as well as their ability to share their thoughts and feelings, was freed.

So, too, were their ambitions — to travel, to make a difference. Wurzberg's film, Wretches and Jabberers, follows Tracy and Larry through Sri Lanka, Japan, and Finland, where they meet other autistic people like fellow advocate Chammi Rajapatirana; a teenage boy named Naoki Higashida who has never heard of "advocacy" before meeting Tracy; and Finns Antti Lappalainen and Henna Laulainen, who spend much of their time engaged in mindless tasks despite their obvious brainpower. To different degrees, they've all been liberated by the use of typing technology, which allows them to educate and change public perceptions about autism. Tracy and Larry's journey establishes deeper connections between the people who will be on the front lines of this public-awareness campaign.

The film presents the autistic as extremely poetic people. Larry speaks of "bursting bubbles of backward thinking," and Tracy says their travels had a "cathartic learning explosive effect on my life." For Chammi, it is "killingly hard to figure out the pattern of movement I need to type my thoughts."

And of course, there's the distinction of "wretches" — the autistic, with their limited communication — from "jabberers" — the rest of us who can speak freely. This delightful turn of phrase comes from Antti during a lunch scene in Finland, where typing devices are passed back and forth in a pattern that mimics overlapping conversation at Thanksgiving dinner. (Their lyrical speech is underscored by a soundtrack featuring 20 originals from the likes of Carly Simon, Devendra Banhart, Scarlett Johansson, Norah Jones, Ben Harper, and Vincent Gallo; with one maudlin exception, the tunes dovetail nicely with the story.)

According to the Maine Autism Alliance, an Augusta-based advocacy organization that is co-sponsoring the Wretches and Jabberers screening at SPACE Gallery, one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, which makes it a more common affliction than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined. While autism's causes remain mysterious, this much is clear: cases are on the rise (perhaps due to improved diagnosis techniques), boys are three to four times more frequently diagnosed than girls, and an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States (and millions more worldwide) are affected by the disorder.

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