Autism is almost a trendy word bandied about these days. So many references to kids being autistic or "on the spectrum" or with Aspergers ... but little comprehension of the nuances and reality of the many faces of these conditions. "Rain Man" introduced all of us to one portrayal of the neural disorder, in the Academy Award-winning film, starring Dustin Hoffman as the lovable, disabled protagonist, and Tom Cruise as his slick, younger, opportunistic brother, who gains a conscience and clarity about what's truly important in the end. But Hoffman's sterling performance as severely autistic Raymond almost distorted the mass perception of what it can mean to be autistic. Most of the western world saw (and loved) the movie and believe we have become experts in reductionalism: We think a vastly differentiated and complex condition can be summed up in the poster child of the Rain Man; he is the template and as long as autistic people behave as Raymond does, we think we understand what it means to be autistic. A dangerous slope. While "Rain Man" put autism on the socially conscious map, it threw blinders on the countless other manifestations of the disorder, including what it means to be on the spectrum or to be diagnosed with Aspergers, or other less diagnosable neurologically-disordered identities. Don't be too quick to judge: As one saying in the autistic community quips, "If you've seen one autistic person, you've seen one autistic person."
"Snow Cake" addresses another side of the world of autism with superb, flawless execution. Sigourney Weaver gives a spot-on, masterful portrayal as Linda, an adult and mother with a fairly severe case of autism that renders her version of reality at odds with what most of us call socially acceptable and functional-in-the-real-world behavior. However, her queer inhabitation in a magical reality of childlike innocence and candor is remarkably pithy in its own way, and may have you wondering why we can't all shake off the social straight jacketing constraints of "appropriate" behavior and speech.
The plot line of "Snow Cake" is driven by Linda's endearingly eccentric daughter, Vivienne Freeman (an elegant, winning portrayal by Emily Hampshire), being killed in a car crash at the start of the film. Yes, a exceedingly low-functioning 40-something-year-old autistic woman has a "neurotypical" biological daughter. While we never learn the precise details of how this came to pass, the film weaves in the plausibility of such a procreative reality due to Linda being an attractive woman and it not being such a leap to imagine a man taking advantage of it -- either with or without Linda's consent. When Vivienne is suddenly killed, a neighbor attempts to express sympathy for Linda with one of the common euphemisms we like to use when facing the uncomfortable subject of death. Linda's forthright lack of pretense and brutally truthful disposition won't have any of it. The well-intending neighbor's attempt to express condolences involve being sorry that Linda lost her child. But autistic, subtlety-free mom, rather reasonably, says that she didn't lose her daughter: "She died." Linda does have a point.
Another moment when a neurotypical audience finds ourselves edified and scratching our heads in humble concession to the wisdom of autistic reasoning is in the scene when Linda is requested to go to the morgue to identify her daughter's body. Linda asks why such a ghastly task is necessary as it's not like there's any doubt that it's her daughter. The effete response as to why she must go through the additional nightmarish trauma of identifying her child's lifeless, cold, dehumanized body -- when it's already 100 percent known that it's her daughter -- is that it's simply protocol. In this scene and so many others, she questions the orthodoxy that insists on unnecessary (and often dreadful) modes of social intercourse. Why in God's name does a mother have to be subjected to such unspeakable horror, when the man driving the car in which her daughter was the fatal passenger has confessed to the tragedy and the entire town is already aware that it is Linda's daughter who has been killed?
Alex Hughes -- played deftly by Alan Rickman -- who was driving the car in which Vivienne met her horrifying demise, seeks to make amends in whatever meager way he can by visiting the dead girl's mother to deliver the news and offer to do anything at all to assuage his grief and help Linda cope. When Alex gets to the house and discovers the mental make-up of Vivienne's mom, his already demolished worldview begins to transform even more.
Prior to the crash, Alex was an extremely depressed man, hardly doing much more than existing through his humdrum life, searching vainly for an existential meaning, to give it all purpose, that eluded him. Then he met Vivienne -- Linda's plucky, optimistic, shrewdly wise-beyond-her-years and point blank happy-to-be-alive daughter. Vivienne hitchhikes a ride out of Alex despite his miserly, curmudgeonly resistance. He starts to see the radiant goodwill and authentic compassion in Vivienne that sparks the tinder of his own fledgling "good side." Just as he is waking up and beginning to believe that life really doesn't have to be an endless plod of suffering until death rescues one from abject misery, the teenage girl, who, like a little Buddha, awakened and thawed the deepfreeze of his heart, is fatally struck by the tractor trailer that bludgeons into Alex's car.
Alex Hughes's life is changed not just when he is at the wheel as a semi-trailer bullets into the passenger side of his car, killing the endearingly eccentric and precocious teenager, and daughter of an autistic mother. His life also transmogrifies slowly as he overcomes his shock at learning who this little girl's mother is ... and sticks around, slowly to debunk his assumptions about Linda's fitness to be a mother. There are distinct "I Am Sam" overtones (another 5-star film in this reviewer's eyes), about what good parenting really means ... and how adults, disabled or not, learn as much from our children as they learn from us. Moreover, perhaps it's the mentally disabled who have the most to teach us smug "neutotypicals."