Movie Curiosities: Ezra

In the past, I’ve been open (often to the point of embarrassment) about my life history on the autism spectrum. Most especially with regards to autism’s portrayal in movies, how it can go horribly wrong, and how it can go brilliantly right. But looking it back and thinking it through, I’m honestly not as interested in the authenticity of the portrayal itself. After all, autism is a spectrum, and a great many on the spectrum are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. No two experiences will be the same.

That said, I’m far more interested in the context and the attitude around autism and the autistic character. Is autism presented as a superpower? As a debilitating curse? Is it a flimsy excuse for a character to act quirky, or as a comic relief? Is there pathos to the character, with mental/emotional layers separate from and/or affected by the diagnosis?

But of course the most important test is in how the autistic character interacts with the other characters. To put this the best way I know how, imagine looking at an Isihara color test and you’re the only one who can’t see the number. You’re seeing the same picture as everyone else, but you’re the only one who can’t see the number, and nobody else knows or believes that color blindness is a thing. So you get really good at memorizing the patterns and placements of the circles and associating them with that number, because that’s the only functional way you can get to the right answer.

That’s the best description I have for the strange disconnect that comes with being autistic. In the best depictions, it’s like the autistic character and the other characters are desperately trying to get on the same page, but there’s this weird kind of mental/emotional language barrier. I don’t really know how to define it except for this weird ache in my gut that feels like fifteen years’ worth of childhood trauma rushing back all at once.

When I say that Ezra hit me right where I live, that’s the sensation I’m talking about. I’ll warn you right now, gentle readers, that this is going to be the longest, most embarrassing, most deeply personal blog entry I’ve written since Power Rangers (2017).

What we’ve got here is a conflict between two divorced parents. On one side is Max (exec producer Bobby Canavale), a comedian who got himself black-listed from late night TV for reasons too funny to spoil here. Conveniently, Max is more comfortable writing his own material as a stand-up comedian. So naturally, he’s flat broke and living with his father in NYC (Stan, played by exec producer Robert De Niro).

On the other side is Max’s ex-wife, Jenna (Rose Byrne). She appears to be comfortably successful as a real estate agent of some kind, and she’s picked up a bland lawyer for a boyfriend (Bruce, played by Tony Goldwyn, who also directed and produced this picture). Oh, and Jenna got the house in the divorce, that should go without saying.

In between the two is their son (the eponymous Ezra, played by newcomer William A. Fitzgerald). Ezra is a grade-school kid so far down on the spectrum that he just got expelled from his third school because he’s “dangerous” and “difficult”, and other such tactful ways for teachers and principals to say “We don’t know what we’re doing with this kid, take him off our hands.” Jenna wants to take the path of least resistance and send Ezra to a special needs school with teachers who are specially trained to handle kids like him, and give Ezra the prescribed antipsychotics to take the edge off. As opposed to Max, who wants to keep Max in with the general population so they can get used to each other.

There is so much to unpack here and I haven’t even gotten started on the actual plot yet. I promise, we’ll get to the actual plot, but there’s a lot we’re gonna have to get through first.

First of all, it bears mentioning that writer/producer Tony Spiridakis is himself the father of an autistic son. For that matter, Fitzgerald himself really is on the spectrum. Pretty much everyone on the cast and crew is either directly autistic or has a loved one somewhere on the spectrum. Authenticity was clearly a crucial factor here, and the effort pays off. Every word of dialogue, every frame in this movie is overflowing with heart. Every last person in this cast and crew was clearly doing their damnedest to get this right. But I still have some nitpicks.

For one thing, it’s 2024. There’s still a lot about autism that we don’t know, and new discoveries are being made every day, but we are light-years ahead of where we were back when I was growing up. Even for such a high-maintenance case as Ezra, autism isn’t such a stigmatized or unknowable factor anymore. Certainly not among teachers and doctors and trained professionals who should damn well know better than anyone in this picture.

My personal favorite example is the doctor who makes an offhand remark about Max, “I get where Ezra gets his violent behavior.” Anyone who would say that to a patient’s parent or guardian in a professional setting has no business being there. Anyone in a healthcare or educational setting who hears a coworker say that should report it in a heartbeat. Fuck that guy.

For another case in point, I sat through literally the entire movie screaming one question over and over again: “Where is this kid’s security blanket?!” Ezra goes through the whole movie anxiously patting his hands on his thighs, tapping his feet, erupting into outbursts like what got him expelled at the start of the movie… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid more badly in need of a security blanket. Literally anyone — a parent, a teacher, a counselor, fucking ANYONE — who’d done five minutes of online research into autism would know to find this kid a goddamn security blanket!

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, a “security blanket” doesn’t have to literally be a security blanket. It just has to be something kept within easy access at all times to provide tactile stimulation for stress relief. My personal favorite example in fiction is from The Power of the Dog, when Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character ran his fingers through the teeth of a comb he always carried. When I was growing up, I’d use a small curtain chain that I wore around my neck for easy access. (I still have that curtain chain to this day. But I wear a pendant instead and it works just as well.)

But nowadays, we have fidget spinners. This is literally — EXACTLY — what fidget spinners were invented for. It’s right there in the name, for fuck’s sake. There are literally hundreds of fidget toys out there, pocket-sized knickknacks for anyone to absently play with if they feel stressed or anxious. It’s such a cost-effective and fundamental step, so thoroughly associated with mental disorders in the mainstream zeitgeist, so especially crucial to a case like Ezra’s. This kid should have a shoebox full of fidget toys sitting right next to his dresser so he’ll never forget to pick his favorite one — or several — before he goes out every day. What the fuck is wrong with these parents?!

Well… quite a lot, it turns out.

See, Max wants Ezra to be a normal kid, while Jenna wants to treat her son like a special needs case. Max sees autism as something to be overcome, and Jenna sees autism as a chronic defect that’s never going away. Max wants to expose his son to the outside world, and Jenna wants to coddle him.

The two have diametrically opposing viewpoints regarding how to raise their son. What’s worse, these two divorced parents hate each other to such an extent that on some level, each of them wants to be the first one to figure it out so they can tell the other one “I told you so.” But more importantly, they’re too proud to admit that they have no goddamn clue what they’re doing. Nobody does.

Worst of all, Ezra himself is the most clueless one of all. Ezra has no idea what he wants or needs, and he’d be fundamentally incapable of communicating whatever he could figure out. Which means Max and Jenna have to step up and be Ezra’s guardian, and they have to fight twice as hard to speak up on his behalf, and we’re right back to the point about how Max and Jenna are constantly at loggerheads.

Max and Jenna legitimately have their son’s best interests at heart. They want to see him succeed, they want to see him be happy and well. The problem is that they’re both too proud, too overprotective, and too deathly afraid of failure to admit that the solution is somewhere in between. It’s a huge complicating factor that neither one of them is entirely wrong, but neither of them is entirely right, either. As a direct result, both characters keep bottling up their anger and frustration to the point where it’s running both of them ragged, especially since they have no healthy way of venting all those feelings or even admitting to them for fear of confessing that they’re terrible parents.

Another huge problem I have with the movie is that Ezra himself doesn’t really have a true advocate. Granted, this is a film written by the father of an autistic boy and the story is told from the father’s perspective, so it makes sense. I will further grant that it plays into the general feeling of isolation and loneliness and helplessness that’s so crucial to the themes of the movie. (Even though again, it’s 2024. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it really doesn’t have to be this hard anymore.) I will also give due praise to De Niro’s character acting as a reluctant moderator between the two co-parents, and Vera Farmiga briefly shows up in the third act as the sole character with a single line to say that Ezra is perfect just as he is.

Even with all of that said, there’s no character in this movie who has it completely nailed. Because they’re all too self-righteous, too short-sighted, too impatient, too harsh in their obsessively domineering compulsion to control and monitor Ezra at all times that nobody ever thinks to make the obvious point that he’s still in grade school! Sure, I don’t think anyone ever explicitly states his age, but he looks to be… what, ten years old? Twelve, maybe?

There’s a point when Max observes that nobody wants to put in the work of figuring Ezra out and working with him, but Max is only half right. The full truth is that everyone wants to skip ahead to the point where Ezra is self-sufficient and capable of handling in the real world, willfully ignoring all the years of therapy and hardship and heartbreak and success and epiphany and trial and error it’s going to take to get there. Not one character in this movie ever points out that what Ezra needs most is conveniently what he’s got most of: Time. No one ever states the simple and heartbreaking plainly obvious fact that nobody — fucking NOBODY — ever got themselves all figured out when they were Ezra’s age.

Again, Vera Farmiga’s character comes so frustratingly close when she brings Max to a hair’s breadth of the realization that maybe everyone in the entire world has failed because they’ve all made the mistake of trying to shape Ezra into something he’s not. Everyone is trying to force Ezra to grow up prematurely, for no better reason than everyone else’s convenience. It boils my blood that not a single character in this movie knows enough to just come out and say “Let Ezra be a kid, for God’s sake! No matter how much it hurts, no matter how long it takes, just let this kid claim his own victories and failures on the way to figuring out who he is, because it’s all going to be so fucking worth it on the other side!”

All we get is one line from Vera Farmiga’s character, but that’s nowhere near enough. If nobody else is going to be this kid’s advocate, I’ll step up and scream to the heavens that “EZRA IS FINE! All appearances to the contrary, he’s right on schedule! This is what an autistic kid looks like at that age! He’s got a lot of hard lessons to learn, and it’s gonna be painful for everyone involved, but he’ll live. More than that, he won’t just live, he’ll fucking thrive! Just give the poor kid a few years to figure himself out and he’ll get there!”

heavy sigh Right. The plot. I should really get to the plot.

Long story short (too late, I know), Max flukes his way onto the Jimmy Kimmel show. So Max kidnaps Ezra (There’s a restraining order, it’s another long story.) and takes him across state lines on a journey from NYC to the taping in LA. Jenna takes this about as well as you’d expect, and law enforcement steadily gets involved. Hilarity ensues.

(Side note: Yes, Jimmy Kimmel himself does drop by for a brief mid-credits appearance, complete with Guillermo Rodriguez riding shotgun.)

As much as I wish there were certain things this movie would’ve said explicitly, it makes damn fine work of the implicit statements. At its heart and core, this is a movie about parents coming to realize that they can make terrible mistakes with consequences that can never be taken back, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people or failed parents. Some mistakes need to be made, and some lessons can only be learned the hard way. Some boundaries can be broken, some can’t, and some can’t be broken until they can. But you’ll never know which is which until you find the courage to try. There is danger outside the comfort zone, but that’s also where life begins. As somebody recently told me, “everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Again, all of this is so beautifully expressed in that third act sequence where Vera Goddamn Farmiga comes into play. Because that all-important scene is when Max and Ezra both finally get what they really needed all along. Max needed a safe space to admit that he doesn’t have to be perfect any more than Ezra does. And Ezra gets the incentive and the safety to finally try things he’s only ever been scared of doing or incapable of doing. That whole sequence is a massive leap forward for both characters, and it’s beautiful to watch.

It sucks that the background supporting players and the greater society in general are portrayed as so unfeeling and monstrous, because all the name players are the exact opposite. I genuinely love how Cannavale, Byrne, De Niro, and Fitzgerald are all playing deeply fallible and flawed human beings who sincerely regret making all these heartbreaking choices simply because they don’t know what else to do. In particular, Cannavale and Byrne turn in what could be career-best work, and De Niro’s monologue toward the end is the most heartbreaking stuff I’ve seen from him in years. And it speaks volumes that Fitzgerald — who, again, is a child actor with autism! — can hold his own and anchor this film against so many masters of the trade operating well within their respective wheelhouses.

Kudos are also due to Rainn Wilson, who capably provides some much-needed comic relief without taking up too much space. I dunno what Whoopi Goldberg was doing here in such a small role, but she nicely elevated the role of Max’s agent. (Apparently, Tony Goldwyn asked her to sign on and she agreed without even reading the script. I’m sure it helped that Goldwyn and Goldberg shared the screen together on Ghost, which famously won Goldberg her Oscar for Best Supporting.) And have I mentioned enough times how Vera Farmiga takes a few short minutes of screen time and turns the whole movie on its head?

Need I say more? I hope not, because this has already gone on too long and this has been emotionally draining to write. Consider it a sincere sign of how much I love Ezra. This movie gets so much right that I can easily forgive everything it gets wrong. There is so much authenticity and effort pouring out of every frame, I have to hope that all the crucial points left unsaid would be implicitly conveyed to the audience anyway.

Yes, there are moments that strain plausibility. Yes, it’s negligent to ignore all the groundbreaking research and easily available resources that would make a case like Ezra’s (much less a lower-maintenance case on the spectrum) far easier to manage than the film makes it look. It’s tough to get over how Ezra’s teachers and parents go through this whole movie like none of them have ever found a book or a reputable online article or a YouTube video or a verbal adult with autism, like those things aren’t readily abundant in 2024. Though maybe it’s not surprising, seeing as this movie apparently takes place in a parallel universe where the teachers, doctors, and authorities are all insensitive assholes who act like autism has only recently been discovered.

It occurs to me that most of my frustrations with this movie stem from the benefit of hindsight. Everything I wish this movie had said, everything I wish I could say to these characters, it all came from a lifetime of experience living in Ezra’s place and stumbling through everywhere he hasn’t gone yet. But when I think back to when I was that age, all the mistakes and outbursts I made, everything I needed, everything I didn’t know I needed, everything my parents went through, all the damage unwittingly done to me by ignorant teachers who insisted on treating me like any other kid because they thought that was best and they didn’t know any better… it all rings true. Sure, I was a significantly lower-maintenance case than Ezra, but still.

As a comprehensive and authentic look at what life with autism is really like, this is too simplistic and outdated to work, with too many blind spots for my liking. (Again, no security blanket, what the fuck?!) But if any parents out there are struggling with a child deemed too “dangerous” or “difficult” for anyone to deal with, if you feel like the slightest mistake means you’ve failed as a parent, if raising a “problem child” feels like an insurmountable task and you need reassurance that there’s still a way forward and everything will work out all right, then you need to see this movie.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Ezra

  1. Personal opinion – I think having De Niro in this movie is a major misstep and insulting to people on the autism spectrum, considering the actor has in the past said that vaccines cause autism. Nothing I can do about that, but I had to voice my piece.

    That nitpick aside, this really sounds like a powerful, potentially uncomfortable movie for a certain audience. But maybe it could help some parents of autistic children get a better idea that the best way to raise their child so they can face the world is to actually see what their child needs, rather than stubbornly insist that their methods are what will work.

    1. It’s a valid complaint, and far be it from me to defend anti-vaxxers. Still, De Niro has an autistic son, and that’s much more relevant to the topic at hand. As to how he feels about autism — i.e. whether it’s better to be autistic than to die of rubella or smallpox — I really couldn’t say.

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