Noble intentions alone do not a great movie make, as evidenced by “Po,” whose heart is in the right place but whose drama is woefully lacking in momentum. Written by Colin Goldman and directed by John Asher (both of whom have autistic children), this low-key feature concerns a single father trying to care for his sixth-grade son, who suffers from a severe case of autism. Considering its characters’ plights with respect and empathy, the film — embellished by a graceful Burt Bacharach score — is well-meaning but, on the whole, intensely inert, and should generate little interest in a heavily crowded award-season indie marketplace.
Bacharach’s “Close to You” cascades over the opening sequence of “Po,” which cross-cuts between David Wilson (Christopher Gorham) grieving at his wife’s funeral, and David’s autistic son Po (Julian Feder) being bullied, and then sitting alone, on the school playground. Despite their kindred unhappiness, the two are a close pair, even though Po’s autism proves a constant issue with which to contend, driving the boy to keep his father awake all night, to use kitchen condiments to draw rainbows on their walls, and to isolate himself at his public elementary school — where the principal fears Po may now be a poor fit.
David thinks he can shoulder the immense responsibility of caring for Po while also maintaining his job as an engineer working on a groundbreaking hybrid plane design. However, from “Po’s” outset, it’s clear that he’s in way over his head. As work pressures mount and things with Po begin spiraling out of control — including the arrival of a child services agent (Brian George) who suspects that the boy’s bruises are the result of abuse — David refuses to accept that Po requires the sort of particular care and attention only provided by a specialized facility. David’s stubborn belief that he’s the best caregiver for Po comes across as a natural parental impulse. Yet from a storytelling standpoint, it’s just about all that Asher’s film has to offer.
Aside from the question of whether David will get his son the focused treatment he requires (and deserves), “Po” is merely a series of incidents designed to convey the many hurdles faced by both autistic kids and their parents. For David, those include health insurers’ unwillingness to classify autism-related therapy sessions as necessary services, and employers’ lack of sympathy for people coping with autistic children. And for Po, it means being harassed at school and retreating into fantasies about knights and pirates (all of which star the janitor at Po’s school), as well as chatting with a make-believe British classmate (Caitlin Carmichael) who functions as the lonely boy’s only friend.
Bacharach’s twinkling piano coats the action in a mood of lyrical melancholy, and his gentle score complements Asher’s functional visuals as well as the performances of the material’s leads. Gorham exudes convincing bone-deep love and loyalty, as well as mounting frustration, as the put-upon David, who inevitably finds himself attracted to Po’s therapist (Kaitlin Doubleday). And newcomer Feder does an equally assured job in a tougher role, expressing through Po’s flailing-limb ticks and repetitive verbal pronouncements (such as his mantra, “Patrick’s a nice name for a boy, but I think I’ll call you Po”) the character’s own struggle for articulation and connection with others.
Still, while “Po” is sensitive to a fault, it’s ultimately just a collection of informational vignettes in search of a larger narrative purpose. Asher and Goldman are so busy detailing the specific difficulties, and joys, wrought by autism that they fail to tell an engaging story, right up to their upbeat conclusion, which feels more like a “maintain hope!” message to those in similar circumstances than a realistic outgrowth of their preceding material. The result is a compassionate portrait in dire need of more compelling plotting.