A mystery replete with miracles, “The Sunshine Boy” is, for many minutes, a primer on autism — statistics, possible causes, the plight of families, the seemingly impenetrable wall that separates the autistic from the world. But the way that wall is breached will leave auds stunned and rethinking what has long been considered a disorder devoid of hope. Given that autism is now diagnosed in one of every 150 children, the pic’s target aud numbers in the tens of millions, though it will require a committed distributor to distinguish it from recent documentaries on the subject.
The first nonfiction film since the early ’80s by Iceland’s Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, “The Sunshine Boy” was the brainchild of producer Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir, whose son Keli has a severe case of autism. A beautiful boy, Keli is seemingly unreachable, lost in a snarl of crossed neurological wires. While autism can manifest itself in more benign fashion — Asperger syndrome being among its milder forms — Keli’s version renders him oblivious to what the world has to offer, including the considerable love of his family — or so it seems. Ericsdottir, frustrated by the hand-washing attitude of conventional medicine toward something it doesn’t understand, decides to go to the autism frontiers of the U.S. looking for some breakthrough she can’t find at home.
Narrated by Kate Winslet — speaking in first-person voice for Ericsdottir, which is a little confusing at first — “The Sunshine Boy” is an extraordinarily beautiful docu: Fridriksson frames everything as if it were a romantic feature, and despite the deluge of often dry fact, the pure aesthetics of the movie keep one watching. Often enough, those facts and people are fascinating, too, albeit in awful ways: One family, the Meulmans, has three autistic sons. That the parents manage to keep it together so tenuously on camera is astonishing, considering the unimaginable burden they’re shouldering.
Titled after Ericsdottir’s pet name for Keli, “The Sunshine Boy” enlists various leading authorities on autism, including Cambridge U.’s Simon Baron-Cohen; Geraldine Dawson, founder of the U. of Washington’s Center for Autism and now chief science officer for the group Autism Speaks; and Temple Grandin, a highly functioning autistic and professor of animal science at Colorado State U. and someone who says she wouldn’t lose her autism if she could. Most remarkable, however, is, Soma Mukhopadhyay, mother of an award-winning autistic writer, and the founder of the Halo center in Austin. Her Rapid Prompting Method of reaching the autistic — which is shown in real time, with multiple children, to amazing effect — cause the viewer to rethink how he or she regards the autistic. Fifty years ago, Keli would have been shunted off to an asylum. What “The Sunshine Boy” provides, along with hope, is an awed sense of what we, despite our best intentions, simply don’t know.
Tech credits are tops, especially the shooting by d.p. Jon Karl Helgason.