Harvey Hubbell’s documentary covers the topic of dyslexia from multiple angles: the filmmaker’s personal experience, historical overview, interviews with famous dyslexics, scientific theories and experimental methodology. Hubbell paints in a wide range of tones, from high camp to pious sentimentality, many of them annoyingly cutesy. The film conveys key information and makes important distinctions not generally known, and its effectiveness probably depends on the viewer’s tolerance for poorly executed kitsch and manic physical intrusions by the filmmaker. But Hubbell’s definition of dyslexia as a “learning difference” rather than a “learning disorder,” as much a blessing as a curse, should be welcome in educational venues.
Hubbell goes on at great length about the trauma of attending school in the ’60s and getting labeled “stupid” or “lazy” for an unrecognized condition; other interviewees supply their own heartfelt horror stories. Dubbing his teachers’ negative evaluations of him over stock footage of Hitler and Mussolini, however, hardly brings home his point.
If Hubbell serves as the docu’s jester, Billy Bob Thornton shines as its articulate, entertaining star. His inclusion in the Dyslexia Hall of Fame launches a catalogue of celebrities so afflicted, from Einstein and Edison to Stephen Cannell and Joe Pantoliano (the latter two interviewed here). Of course, those who do not excel often go to jail (footage of a prison riot), as some 80% of prison inmates are reportedly deficient in reading skills. As one expert concludes, it’s much cheaper to teach people to read than to pay for their imprisonment.
Hubbell’s illustrated discussion of pioneers in the field of diagnosing learning disabilities proves laudably clear and concise, though every bit as dry as the preceding sections were jokey. More contemporary footage of modern educational facilities and institutions stresses their efficacy, with litanies of praise and typical “visiting the campus” visuals.
The “scientific” section understandably makes no pretense of explaining the ways dyslexic brains are wired differently, serving more as an occasion to trot out cool animated graphics of color-coded cerebral networks. Several scientists and dyslexics manage to make clear, though, that the simplistic notion of transposed letters does not begin to describe the confusing distortions produced in the dyslexic’s brain when trying to read by traditional methods.
The documentary succeeds in addressing several aspects of its subject. But Eric Gardner’s slapdash editing of stock footage under Michael Bacon’s wah-wah music fails to amuse, while Gardner’s flatly shot man-on-the-street surveys (“What do you know about dyslexia?”) consistently underwhelm.