“Life-changing” is the kind of hyperbolic descriptor thrown around all too easily in the world of publishing, but it could quite reasonably be applied to Naoki Higashida’s nonfiction bestseller “The Reason I Jump.” Written when Hagashida was just 13 years old, it’s a unique account of autistic spectrum disorder from the inside, giving voice to a community frequently described as “non-speaking” and dispelling multiple misconceptions about the way they see and feel the world around them. Translating that perspective-shifting achievement to the screen is a tall order, but Jerry Rothwell’s documentary of the same title does so with imagination and grace: Not so much a direct adaptation of Higashida’s book as an application of its insights to the lives of five other young people diagnosed with ASD, it finds supple visual and sonic language to bring sensory dimension to their experience.
It’s easy enough to see how “The Reason I Jump” nabbed an audience award at Sundance in January — it’s as emotionally piercing as it is beautiful to behold — but that’s not to say the film plays to the gallery. Rather, it counts significantly on the viewer’s own capacity for empathy and interpretation, evoking autism through impressionistic detail instead of pedantic medical explanation. Rothwell’s film is most comparable to the BAFTA-nominated doc “Notes on Blindness” in its efforts to make cinematically immediate a condition that many imagine in blandly literal terms. Buoyed by the enduring profile of its source material, “Jump” should complete a popular festival run disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic (though it recently played the digital edition of Hot Docs), to land comfortably in arthouses, streaming platforms and TV schedules alike.
Hagashida’s book lends a structural and spiritual spine to the film, with key extracts from the English translation — co-written by “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell — delivered in running voiceover, binding the otherwise diverse experiences of five subjects spread far across the globe. In India, we meet Amrit, who channels her frustration at being unable to converse with others into vibrant drawings that illustrate her daily routines and encounters, and eventually net her a solo gallery show. In Britain, teenager Joss is more verbal, but struggles to separate past traumas from present-day events, leading to volatile emotional swings before his parents (the film’s producers, Jeremy Dear and Stevie Lee) reluctantly place him in a residential school.
In the U.S., best friends Ben and Emma crucially have each other as allies and confidantes at the progressive special-needs school they attend together, though they also manage to communicate with their families and teachers via letterboards. Punched in a single letter at a time, their thoughts are complex, witty and frequently angry. “They have denied our civil rights,” Ben observes of his previous, less enlightened school: a reminder that, while autistic people can be incorrectly described as living in a world of their own, they often see the one we inhabit all too clearly. Finally, we travel to Sierra Leone to meet Jestina, youngest and perhaps furthest on the spectrum of the five, whose parents Mary and Roland have battled hard to establish the country’s first dedicated school for autistic children. It’s a significant victory in a society where people like Jestina are still frequently accused of witchcraft or Satanic possession by superstitious elders.
Interleaved with their stories is more ambient footage of a young autistic boy (Jim Fujiwara) exploring and playing in a stormy coastal landscape. His hands-on experience of his surroundings is evoked through exquisite, near-tangible closeup imagery, zeroing in on striking individual colors, textures or flickers of light. These scenes are overlaid with passages from Higashida’s book, describing a sense of the world in which details can swamp what the rest of us might see as the bigger picture. In the wrong hands, this device could feel an artsy affectation; instead, it serves to highlight shared perceptions and sensations among autistic people, without sinking into convenient generalizations.
Contrasting perspective is provided by loving but self-effacing family members, as well as the aforementioned Mitchell, himself the father of an autistic son. These alternating points of view, however sympathetically intertwined, still show up a key gap in understanding between them: the realization that no non-autistic person can ever perceive time, space and memory the way an autistic person does, and vice versa.
Using the vivid pointers in Higashida’s book, however, the filmmaking does its best to bridge the barrier, via Ruben Woodin Dechamps’ kinetic, color-saturated camerawork and Nick Ryan’s highly resourceful sound design, which carry us palpably between headspaces. Nimbly switching between different lenses and sonic streams, Rothwell invites viewers inside the psychological isolation and overwhelming sensory awareness felt by people at various points on the spectrum, as well as cathartic breakthroughs in expression and connection with others. “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation,” Ben observes via his letterboard; for many viewers, this compassionate, creative documentary will open ears and eyes in equal measure.