One of the most satisfying moments in the new film Ezra happens early on, when its main character, while taking a whiz, aims directly at the ABA therapy card his parents taped to the wall. “A Boy pees into the bowl,” reads the card, which grows wetter by the second.
Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald) is an 11-year-old autistic kid having troubles at school because he is misunderstood and overwhelmed—a relatable problem for most autistics, yet one that’s rarely portrayed sympathetically in film and television. What makes this story even more unique is that scriptwriter Tony Spiridakis, himself a parent of an autistic kid, has centered the plot around three generations of autistics in one family. As they try to manage the issues in Ezra’s life, Ezra’s grandfather Stan (Robert DeNiro) and father Max (Bobby Cannavale) are also managing their own issues. Those of us with autistic parents or grandparents might recognize the emotional undercurrents that flow from a lifetime of being misunderstood, embodied in detail by both DeNiro and Cannavale.
Another unique aspect of the film is its neurodiversity approach. For starters, director Tony Goldwyn insisted that an autistic actor play Ezra. The associate producer of the film, Alex Plank, is autistic as well. The goal was not only to have an authentic film, but to create a film set that was accessible for neurodivergent actors and/or crew. Everyone took part in an autism education session, led by Plank, who was on-set throughout the production. The team took the time to fully explore the unfamiliar terrain of a film set with Fitzgerald, as it is the young actor’s first film. Accommodations included proactively considered factors such as the location of actor trailers in relationship to noise, and carefully managing the unpredictability of a film shoot schedule and other factors. “I think it helped everyone,” Plank told me.
The result was not only a more accessible set, but a production in which actors could help shape the arc of the story—from improvised lines and gestures to the overall tone, which felt authentic to me as an autistic viewer. Some of the most lyrical moments in the film are conjured by Fitzgerald, a richly talented actor who brings a poetic depth to Ezra, from his passionate outbursts to the subtle shifts in his countenance—plus some kickass echolalia! While another director might have interrupted the flow of Fitzgerald and other actors’ performances with the roar of a soundtrack, Goldwyn resisted that urge. He is not afraid of quiet, which makes for a much stronger film.
In the film, Ezra’s teacher tells his parents, “He’s really been acting out today, and I have other students who want to learn.” Many parents of neurodivergent kids have had to grit their teeth through these kinds of meetings, but for an autistic parent it can push a meltdown. After all, schools have mislabeled, misunderstood and segregated us our entire lives; how would it be possible not to feel rage when this same attitude is directed towards one of our kids? When social work authorities mandate Ezra to take Risperidone and attend a special needs school, Ezra’s grandfather Stan tells his son Max, plainly: “None of it is “special.” It’s all bullshit.”
“The word autism comes from the Greek: ‘in your own world,’” Max says. “I don’t want Ezra in his own world, I want him in this world.” It is precisely this world that Ezra and Max enter, in the middle of the night at 55 mph, as Max spirits Ezra away from the stultifying realm of social workers and court orders to the dreamy world of an off-season kid’s camp in Michigan, managed by his best friend Nick (Rainn Wilson). This is the first of several places where Ezra finds moments of quiet connection and the safe space to try some new things.
Yet life on the road has deeply stressful moments too, and eventually Ezra beseeches his father to deal with his inner turmoil. To wit: If all of our grief gets filtered through outrage, we can run out of energy for the people who need us most. It’s an interesting glimpse into the challenge of co-regulating in a world where you also have to fight for fairness.
In some sense, the quest reaches its end with time still remaining in the film, but there’s more to the story. It pivots around a central choice many families grapple with: To conform and be part of a system of frankly terrible “interventions”; to drop out of the system entirely and try to find a new way; or to work within the existing system and make change. Ultimately, families who’ve been down any of these roads (or all of them) will likely glimpse some of their own story in the film. “Ezra just needs to be seen and heard and appreciated for what he has to offer,” says Max. Cue the collective nod from parents.
As an autistic person, I carry a lot of hope into every film or show I watch with an autistic character. Yet media representations have often been heartbreakingly off-key. In 2017, the British show Pablo broke the mold by hiring autistic writers and actors to make something truly amazing. Ezra continues in this new tradition, showing that when autistic people are creatively involved it strengthens not only representation, but the very quality of a film itself.