An Atypical Review: Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ combines wit and relatability

“How are you feeling? Do you like the show? Are you tired of it? Never mind, I don’t wanna know. Are you finding it boring? Too fast? Too slow? I’m asking, but don’t answer ’cause I don’t wanna know”

Bo Burnham, Inside

Being locked inside for an entire year often felt like such a barren and apocalyptically mundane act that its hard to believe any art came from 2020 at all. That said, I have become intrigued by the genre of ‘lockdown’ which seeks to simultaneously convey the boredom and fear wrought by the pandemic. Indeed, while I’m sure we will be seeing more and more retrospective pieces over time, one thats already defined the genre and set the tone for a lot of lockdown art to come is the musical comedy special ‘Inside’, by Bo Burnham. Filmed entirely in one room and turning it’s attention not to the outside world but to the “much more real” online space, the work is lent poignancy by the fact that many of the experiences the film offers an insight into – the frustration at virtually interacting with family members, the familiar yet somehow empty feeling of becoming disassociated by experiencing all interaction online – are incredibly relatable.

Quite often, Bo is shown watching himself perform the scenes, partly to show his anxiety surrounding being a public figure, and partly to show that the cycle of worrying about how you’re presented through social media – an anxiety that companies from AT&T to Instagram are happy to exploit – is a system he is very much part of. For that reason, while Bo is quite critical of social media’s grip on humanity he never lets his criticisms obscure his empathy, making clear on multiple occasions that there’s a human behind the content and that underneath what is seemingly a shallow social media post there can be nuance and humanity. ‘White Women’s Instagram’ see’s Bo being critical of social media figures, but the bridge of the song see’s the frame widening, as the influencer character being sung about uses the platform to tell a moving personal story of coping through the loss of a loved one, and using anything to try and fill the void. While a song like ‘Welcome to the Internet’ may on the one hand be a zany if menacing embodiment of the all the dystopian and weird aspects of life online, the bridge acknowledges that the perception of having ‘the world in your hands’ can feel liberating, even if that emotional response is very much by design.

You’d be forgiven upon reading that last paragraph, for thinking that Burnham is mocking others but you quickly realise upon watching Inside that most of his jokes are incredibly self-deprecating. One of the funniest moments occurs when Bo reacts to ‘the song you just heard’ before the reaction starts playing and he finds himself reacting to his own reaction and so on, getting increasingly critical of himself as he ends up starting at multiple videos of himself, each trying to validate and seek approval for his actions. Indeed, the opener see’s Bo arrogantly adopting this role of a white saviour who’s going to use his comedy to save the world – “If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke“. However, in the same breath our performer wonders if he should even be making light of a serious situation and wondering how that reflects on himself, with closer ‘Goodbye’ showing our his worries about irrelevance or losing control over his mental health, conscious that comedy could not help him in that scenario.

Of course, there is a sense of nihilism that inevitably bleeds into films like this one – Its not too detached from musical epics like The Wall and Tommy where a series of seemingly disconnected scenes coalesce in making the viewer empathize with an archetypal character, if only because we see the most depressing sides of ourselves in them. Similarly, in this film there are moments of harrowingly relatable defeatism – ‘Shit’, ‘All Time Low’ – sections of absolute absurdity laced with political commentary – ‘Bezos’, ‘How the World Works’ – and confessional fourth-wall-breaking moments which make the audience feel directly involved. Many critics have already praised the brutal honesty Bo shows around the mental health in this struggle, including crying on camera which marks a change from a lot of these types of pieces as while the ones I’ve mentioned already provided an insight into the minds of thier creators, they shrouded thier confessionalism behind metaphor and theatricality, while ‘Inside’ opts for a more vulnerable and stripped-back approach.

’30’ has rightly been lauded as a confessional and sharp-witted anthem about getting older in lockdown. This see’s Bo standing in a darkened room, illuminating himself using the torch from his phone, which he rotates around himself as if to represent the passage of earth around the sun – a stunning piece of visual art which also cleverly illuminates the grip of technology over our lives. I’ve seen some criticise this one for sounding like ‘millennial-woes the musical’ but I think that’s unfair. During lockdown, there was a very real sense of the hastening passage of time, and a very deep fear that as the days blurred together you were squandering what time you’ve got left. However old you turned in lockdown, its likely that you felt that ping of insignificance which keeps us awake at night at night, tossing and turning as we lose seconds to watching the minutes chase away the hours. Perhaps my favourite song here for the way the lyrics capture the perplexing state of unreality we find ourselves in, confronted with the apocalyptic scenarios of pandemics and climate change is ‘That Funny Feeling’. Surrounded by light and projections that give the impression of being hurdled in the woods, trying to savour the last remnants of a dying fire, the song exquisitely captures that feeling of being ‘burned-down’ – the exhaustion of being able to perceive the state of the world and yet not being able to find the right words or emotions to meet that. In a time when we’ve all resolved to stay in our homes knowing theres little we can personally do about the chaos outside our windows, this one resonates emotionally more than any other.

On that point about the visual aspects of this special, I feel that needs to be mentioned as its always been one of the aspects which has made his comedy stand out. In Eighth Grade – a film he directed, also about mental health in the presence of social media – many of the shots are illuminated using the light from computers or phones. Here, ‘Facetime With My Mom (Tonight)’ uses the same effect, the phone acting as a kind of spotlight, drawing our attention to the facial expressions. Likewise, rather than simply showing shots of Bo’s phone, ‘Sexting’ see’s Bo himself and the walls of this room he’s in becoming canvasses, partly for portraying what’s on his screen and partly for showing what’s happening in his head. ‘Problematic’ might be one of my least favourite moments owing to the fact that some of the ‘work-out montage’ visuals feel like very well trodden ground, and the song itself might come across as sneering or condescending to someone who hasn’t seen enough of Bo to know that he’s being genuine when he says that he regrets the offensive or crass aspects of his work. That said, the contrast of light with dark in this scene is very well-done and one that I can imagine took a while to perfect. Another aspect that’s particularly intriguing is how keen Bo is to remind the audience that what they are watching is a film. This is not something divorced from peoples lives, this is something he has been working on to get him through a situation we’ve all experienced. As a result, he’s often showed surrounded by his gear, setting up or testing his equipment, or else performing with some of the cameras in full view. This intentionally forces the audience to question the authenticity of the piece. To realise that this film has been planned, scripted and rehearsed, just like the rest of the online world.

Now, you might be thinking at this stage ‘this is all very well Alex, but what does Inside have to do with autism?’ The answer to that question is ‘not much’. Burnham himself is not autistic as far as myself or the wider public are aware. However, firstly, while all my work is from the perspective of an autisitc person its not necessarily all about autism. Secondly, while this may or may not have crossed Burnham’s mind when he was writing the film, its uniquely relatable from a neurodivergent point of view. Very often, autistic people, especially those who struggle with thier mental health, try to find comfort in solitude. One way many of us do this is through music and lights. I particularly find a kind of dim lamp light or coloured lights in a darkened room, accompanied by music helps to stimulate my senses, while also relaxing me. Naturally then, Inside had a similar effect on me. Also, to elaborate on the issue of the mind, in making a piece thats so open and confessional, many people on the spectrum will undoubtedly find comfort in this film, especially considering that so many of us aspire to be this expressive, but feel stifled by neurotypical norms.

The theme of social anxiety is also particularly pertinent. One of the most moving moments in the entire show comes at the climax with the song ‘All Eyes On Me’ where Bo appears to be performing on a figurative stage, his movements projected on to the wall behind him as he’s cast in in blue Light. As the song reaches its peak and the shot pulls back to reveal only a camera where there might be an audience, Bo talks about quitting live performance due to suffering frequent panic attacks on stage, recalling his process of healing and then finally deciding, in January of 2020, to start performing again. We all know, of course, what happened next. Indeed, while we see that Bo is terrified of a closed off and insular online world, represented here by the room he’s trapped inside, we also see him settled into a kind of comfort in avoiding the world, and a realisation that if he steps outside of that he will be stepping back into that role of the flamboyant comedian, which everyone expects of him. In the final moments of the special, the door to the room Bo is trapped in is seen to be slightly ajar. He walks toward the strange light emanating from the outside, opens the door and steps out on to the cold and exposed surface of a stage. He pulls at the door handle of his cage, desperate to get back inside, while a crowd is heard laughing at his futile efforts. As one line sounds:

“look who’s inside again. Went out to look for a reason to hide again. Well, well, buddy, you found it. Now come out with your hands up we’ve got you surrounded”

Bo Burnham, Inside

Personally, I’ve documented in great detail, how much I disliked the loneliness of lockdown. Inside reminded me of that and in that sense its a film I’ll only want to revisit at certain moments in my life. More than that though, the film reminded me of my own deeper anxieties surrounding social interaction, autisitc masking and maintaining an outward image of confidence through all of that. It doesn’t matter how much we value the company or others, or how frightened we are by the disquiet of isolation. Sometimes even the smallest of experiences on the outside can leaving us want to turn and desperately look for a place to hide. The beauty of Inside is that somehow through just one room, a series of vivid lighting effects and a set of cleverly crafted songs, the piece captures both, still managing to be optimistic through an acknowledgment that we wont be trapped inside our anxieties forever. “hey, what can you say we were overdue but it’ll be over soon, you wait”.

Sia’s ‘Music’ proves an tedious display of ableism and ignorance – An Atypical Review

Although I try, as a critic and commentator, to remain neutral on a piece of media before the experience, I and many other people in the autisitc community were angry at ‘Music’ and Sia months before release date. The issues started with some autistic people making some very good faith critiques about Sia casting a neurotypical actress, Maddie Ziegler, in the role of a non-verbal autistic character named Music. In the process of responding to those tweets she called autisitc people bad actors, said that she tried to cast a non-verbal autistic actress despite previously saying in 2017 that she wrote the role specifically for Maddie and tacitly acknowledged that she hadn’t tried to make the environment more accessible in the process. When asked later whether she thought she was being ableist she replied “Well, it is ableism but it’s actually nepotism, because I couldn’t do a project without Maddie” – So….hang on….are we saying that ableism is just fine now?

Perhaps that perspective came from working with Autism Speaks – an organization who put the majority of thier resources into finding cures for what they see as an affliction. The popstar turned budding director claims she did three years of research into this subject, and yet she didn’t know that to most people on the spectrum, autism speaks equals bad? Woe to those who press play. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to seeing this. However, I felt that if my review could stop one person from seeing this movie, then it would be worth sitting through. ‘Grrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY’ Sia tweeted early on, in response to critics. Well Sia, I’ve seen your movie. Its terrible.

Indeed, this movie isn’t just terrible. Its offensively, patronizingly, terrible. Its’s the cinematic equivalent of every person who’s ever looked at you pityingly when they say that your autistic. It observes without understanding. This is apparent when in one of the movies many phoney postcard- inspirational attempts to pull on the viewers heartstrings, two of the main characters entrusted to care for Music – Zu and Ebo – walk behind her in the park, and comment on how her autism means she can apparently hear whispering from three rooms away, which…uh….no. If this seems a baffling indictment of the kind of ‘magical thinking’ idea of autism, that guides many of Sia’s directorial decisions, including the sensory-overload inducing dance routines that pepper this film, that’s because this movie is not for autistic people at all.

‘Music’ tells the story of Kazu “Zu” Gamble (Kate Hudson) – the lead characters drug dealing sister, struggling to stay sober. In true rain man form, the autistic girl becomes a cynical plot device to help the protagonist achieve her goals of getting her life together, and be with the kindly neighbor ‘Ebo’ (Leslie Odom Jr.) As well as bein a redemption narrative for a neurotypical characters, its also a vain mercy device for Sia who has a cameo in this movie to talk about a fabricated charity venture named ‘popstars without borders’. What autistic people are supposed to get from any of this, is unclear. The whole piece reeks of a ill-informed attempt to pander to some neurotypicals desire to feel good about themselves, while allowing Sia to give herself a pat on the back for being such a good saviour of the autistic and disabled, who she evidently dosent believe have any agency of thier own. In one particularly revealing interview leading up to this film being released, the interviewer compared non-verbal autisitc people to inanimate objects to which Sia nodded and smiled. Did I mention that Autism Speaks was involved here?

From the moment this film starts, you get an extremely offensive caricature of autisitc people as Ziegler dances through a labyrinth of flashing light while contorting her facial expressions, flailing her arms and making exaggerated movements. I remind you that there are plenty of autistic actors Sia could have picked in making this movie, who may not have so easily slipped into the kind of ableist tropes Ziegler does here. In defending her movie, Sia recalled how Maddie became quite emotional at the possibility that she could be taking the mick out of autistic people. For reference, I am not about to go after an 18 year old actress for doing something that she was told to do, but I can’t say she wasn’t right to be worried. This performance is a caricature of autistic ‘stimming’ and is deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms people employ when bullying autistic people for the ways we behave. I find these stim activities deeply comforting, as they lend a sense of stability to my world. However, I have believed in the past that there must be something wrong with the way I move, due to bullying and imitation by neurotypicals. Watching this deeply insensitive, tone deaf embarrassment of a film makes for an infantilizing and dehumanizing experience. I won’t link to the trailer, but here is a tweet from autistic advocacy account, the autisticats:

None of this is helped by the flow of the film. The entire thing feels messy and scattered, like narrative cohesion was an afterthought rather than a guiding principle. Characters fall out and then make up, in fake attempts to inject drama into what is otherwise a lifeless and deeply tedious script. Nearly all of the dialogue is hackneyed, feeling torn from a scrapbook of generic song lyrics, a la – “I used to think I knew what love was, now I’m not so sure”. There’s an odd subplot about a non-speaking neighbor of Music and Zu who’s verbally abused by his parents, and ends up getting killed after stepping into a fierce altercation between his mum and his dad, just after buying a pet dog for Music. Why does this subplot exist? Who is this character? What is this entire section of the movie intended to achieve? In yet another display of pointless mockery, Ziegler’s character makes lots of noise in the hallway of the apartment building where she lives, provoking the ire of a very angry neighbor who responds by calling the police – a movie event that goes absolutely nowhere. Lot’s of debate has been had as to whether the dance sequences or the actual movie are preferable – a conflict I wrestled with, as I found myself wanting one type of scene to end as the other began. Worst of all, I feel the musical breaks could have worked had some serious consideration been put into them beyond the desire to visually wow the viewer, and if they were accompanied by a much more coherent film, to give them context.

This brings me to something I’ve been avoiding thus far. Let’s talk about the restraint scenes. Prone restraint is more often than not, a form of abuse directed against autistic people which can result in injury or death. Here its portrayed twice after ‘Music’ is portrayed having autistic meltdowns and both times, its portrayed as an act of mercy rather than the violent and aggressive action that it is. “aren’t you hurting her” Zu asks when Ebo performs the prone restraint action. “No, I’m crushing her with my love” Ebo replies in a line that would be outright laughable if it weren’t so ridiculously offensive and wrong. For reference, autistic people do sometimes have meltdowns when confronted with sensory overload. They are unlikely to be of harm to anyone in that moment and these states can be stabilized in a range of ways, from letting the autisitc person find a quiet space where they can calm down, to talking to them.

I’d hate to think that from watching this movie, more people came to believe that prone restraint is an acceptable way to deal with this situation. These scenes surfaced before the movie was released meaning they were among the concerns that Sia so ardently dismissed when promoting her film. I also fear for the wellbeing of autisitc people who have experienced prone restraint and are reminded of thier suffering through watching these scenes, after experiencing all the trauma that comes through being violently constrained. If there was ever a reason not to watch this awful movie, these scenes provide that excuse. The below video cuts off before any violence is shown, but is worth bringing to people’s attention:

Although I have supported Sia’s music and art in the past, after watching this film I’m done with her. Her vague apologies and attempts to cover up her huge mistakes are too little too late. Its recently come out that this movie has received a golden globe nomination which is an insult not only to the campaigners speaking out against this movies insipid portrayals and terrible writing, but an insult to all the genuinely talented autistic creators who I want to focus on much more in the future, and who unlike this movie are worth your time. I sincerely hope that Sia never plans to come within an inch of this subject ever again and I ask anyone who wishes to make autism media, not to steal agency away from people on the spectrum, not to rob autisitc actors of badly needed work, and not to shut out all facts and opinions which conflict with your ego in pursuit of making a conceited and self-aggrandizing pity narrative! Under no circumstances should creators put themselves on a pedestal by claiming to be supportive of disability, before silencing and patronizing us. If you can’t at least try and understand us by listening to people and organisations who care, let autisitc people tell thier own stories!

‘I Am Greta’ shows autism as essential to Thunberg’s activism – An Atypical Review

We begin on footage of forests burning, of flooding, of climate refugees in a desperate struggle for safety. Over the carnage we hear recordings of world leaders and political commentators denying the problem – falsely arguing that CO2 being released into the atmosphere makes negligible difference on the climate or how ‘global warming is good, actually’. We then cut to footage of Greta on a small boat sailing across a tumultuous ocean, as she remarks on her life as being like a particularly bad movie. She’s not the one being naïve. Her uniquely autism-inspired message that as part of nature, surely humans should be talking about nothing other than safeguarding the natural world, makes perfect sense when presented in such stark terms.

Contrasted against images of powerful adults underestimating the scale of the problem, or else proposing spurious solutions to do with lightbulbs, her uniquely autistic messages of ‘survival or extinction’ are shown be ‘that simple’. She’s not the one being childish, our leaders are! There are other moments where she is shown to get emotional during speeches. When asked why she reacted in that way afterwards she simply relays the content: entire species disappearing, rainforests being plundered for the natural resources, and a human race whose future remains in the balance – how could anybody not feel like crying when faced with those realties?

One of the starkest moments comes when Greta describes falling into depression at the age of 11, faced with the reality of the climate crisis. Accompanied by her father – who is shown as a constant source of support, but by no means control – she describes how she stopped talking to anyone, stopped eating and lost unhealthy amounts of weight. Soon after, she was diagnosed with Autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Selective Mutism – a condition by which you only speak in certain circumstances or, vitally, when necessary. Her reaction when she realised that there is a climate crisis speaks to the way autistic people react when confronted with a wicked problem. Many of us can’t passively observe while millions suffer, or ecosystems die. There’s a very real emotional reaction we can have to staring these seemingly insurmountable challenges in the face. They can lead us to become sad, depressed or motivate us to action. This documentary doesn’t present this as anything strange.

 “We aren’t very good at lying, and we usually don’t enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of. I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before”

Greta Thunberg, TED Talk

Of course, now at the age of 18, Greta has already achieved something few teenagers ever accomplish – make thousands of grown men unreasonably angry at her. There’s one scene where she’s joyously mocking mean comments. Many of the criticisms levelled at Greta are through an “ableist gaze”. Ideas of her being ‘mentally ill’ are repeated in compilations of all the media pundits who have levelled hate against Thunberg, as is the idea that she ‘can’t understand’ the world. Scarily, these are accusations most autistics have experienced at some point. Others bully her for her tone of voice or her facial expressions – Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro among them. The idea here is that a few very rich and powerful individuals have held a grip over natural resources and are now challenged by those who think differently from them, demanding that they stop treating the natural world as a ‘bottomless sweet jar’. Even when speaking at conferences, Greta feels patronised and ignored. Looking at the meagre “solutions” presented in response to her speeches (“We’re making toilet flushes more energy efficient”) its’ hard not to understand her frustration. For those people, liberal or alt-right, Greta has a very simple message which she delivers at the UN summit “Change is coming, whether you want that or not”.

A lot of the film focuses on Greta’s relationship with her dad, who has a large role in helping her with a lot of her activities. Equally though, we see how laughably far from the truth the claims that Thunberg is being put up to her activism by her parents are. ‘When she told me that she planned to skip school and sit outside the Swedish parliament, I said I wouldn’t support her’ says her father at the beginning of the film.  Indeed, thinking about the documentary in terms of character development, his is very interesting in that he begins the film with the same reservations as those who come up to Greta on the street to ask why she is in school, and becomes gradually more sympathetic to the line that asks “why study for our future, if we might not even have one?”. There are moments where he gets overly interventionist as a parent, for example by encouraging Greta to stop using language like “sixth mass extinction”, to which she makes clear the importance and accuracy of those words. There are other moments where he is more sensible such as when he begs Greta to please eat her lunch before going on stage.  As an autistic person watching, I find a great deal of relatability in these scenes. They show us that this is a distinctly human story and reminds us of the personal passions and experiences which compel people to try and change their world.

Part of the reason this film is so effective in its personable and non-aggressive approach is the fly-on-the-wall technique whereby the camera simply follows Greta through her day to day activities, allowing her to narrate. In fact, while many others treat her like a celebrity, she doesn’t treat herself like one. She makes clear on several occasions that the glitz and glamour, the fancy palaces she gets invited to and the wild receptions are all meaningless, unless the problems she’s addressing can be remedied. She has very little to prove beyond her cause, and all the proof needed for that is already there, if people would care to listen.  In one moment, she’s meeting a friend and joking about how she can’t plan anything just in case she’s invited to speak to another conference or protest about a message which should be incredibly obvious by now.

Of course, there are moments where these sentiments are expressed with more anger and frustration. The camera even accompanies her aboard the ship that she and her father used to sail to America to speak to world leaders – she doesn’t want to be someone that says something and does the opposite. In an emotional sequence, we see waves batter the tiny boat as Greta talks about missing her friends, of wanting a normal life, yet not being able to have one as she values the opportunity to make a difference above her wants her needs. This portrays the tiredness, the stress and dislocation that led to that widely shared quote we saw amplified across our screens – ‘you have stolen my childhood. How dare you!’

Think about that last quote. She could have been ‘professional’ and given an eloquent and polite speech. Instead, her autism and ways of thinking about the world compelled her to express herself honestly, and in doing so break the steotypical image of how people on those platforms are supposed to behave. As she said before, she’s not interested in the social games we all seem so fond of. The situation is far too serious for that.   

Its explained very early in the film that as someone on the spectrum, Greta likes a sense of certainty and routine. Climate change provides the human race with neither of those. That’s why whether she wants to hear it or not, Greta is quite brave for defying some of the challenges which can come with autism and placing herself outside of her comfort zone. And no, not everything Thunberg says guarantees to make you comfortable or happy about yourself. That’s why the underlying message of this movie is not simply one of a girl who skipped school to protest or even one of environmentalism. Rather, that in order to make a difference, you sometimes need to step outside of the places and routines you feel most safe in.  Indeed, that’s not just a message we could do with learning with regard to the natural world, but with regard to autism! In one moment, which made me grin from ear to ear, an interview asserts that Thunberg “suffers from autism” as is the agreed upon terminology for much of the media. Proudly and politely, the teenage activist corrects him: “I wouldn’t say I suffer…I am autistic”. Even through all the uncertainty she’s endured, she still sees her autism as her ‘superpower’ because she likely wouldn’t have had the creativity and drive do a lot of her work if she wasn’t ‘atypical’. Perhaps we should all be a little autistic, in that sense!

I Am Greta is currently available to view on BBC iPlayer and Hulu

Kaufman’s ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ explores surreal narratives – An Atypical Review

‘people like to think of themselves as points moving through time, but I think It’s the opposite. We’re stationary and time passes through us, blowing like cold wind’

Uncertainly named Girlfriend, I’m thinking of Ending Things

Any writer talking about Charlie Kaufman hasn’t got an easy task on their hands. Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Being John Malkovich are detailed to such an extent that interpreting them is likely to result in a degree of the writer drawing on thier interpretation.

Kaufman has built his career on confounding viewer expectations around story, logic, coherence, often in attempt to criticise the clichés surrounding storytelling. A central theme of this movie is the often-stereotyped theme of romantic relationships. One of the key plot points that’s presented is the disconnect between staying in a relationship while burdened by the idea that this is the closest you will ever get to happiness, or risk confronting the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with ‘ending things’. Many people’s lives can lack a sense of certainty. My struggle to internalize and expect sudden noises, patterns of speaking or ways of behaving, means the world can be an uncertain place. What wonder then that when we find a sense of certainty like a stable routine or a relationship, we want to cling to that.

The actual story is distinctly awkward – the girlfriend whose name is not quite clear, is the central character. She is going with her boyfriend, Jake, to visit his parents. Importantly, before she so much as gets into the car she’s thinking of ending their relationship, which is in itself portrayed as strange, in the way they communicate. Equally disquieting are her interactions with his parents. The dispersed nature of the communication, accentuated by the erratic camera work and the cuts to out of context parts of the room like a pair of eye’s that don’t know where to focus. In one scene the girlfriend and father are discussing paintings – he hates art that dosent represent anything, and dosent understand how landscapes can be sad – ‘how can a painting be sad if there’s no one looking sad in them’.

The relationship between the couple is intriguing – Jake has a superiority complex when it comes to the art that he creates as well as the intellectual pursuits that his parents dote upon him. And yet they are not that different – they both like to paint and often her career is described as similar even if, like her name, its never made clear. Still, that sense that something is very wrong saturates. I’m not the first person to point out that the boyfriend could be autistic. The girlfriend has an element of being able to socialize that he clearly does not have, again reminiscing the strange feeling of being in a room where everyone’s chatting freely, and you have a glass wall separating from the atmosphere. Does she really want to be with someone who has such a different way of being, just to help him sustain this idealized image of a relationship that he has in his head? We soon realise that the film is not really about either of these two characters.

For as much as her name is obscured, the film puts the girlfriend front and centre both through the narration and the artwork. She captures the anxiety of trying to find a place where she can make a relationship work out of a sense of ‘what else am I going to do with my life?’, even if she knows that the relationship is doomed. Underpinning the film is that sense of danger and as a blizzard ensues throughout, there’s a running motif of the road being treacherous – a metaphor for the journey into uncertainty. Indeed, every time the girlfriend insists that they need to leave, the boyfriend loudly rebukes her with ‘I have chains’ – a strong metaphor for the surrender of freedom she might undergo, if she stays with him. While he’s clinging on to a sort of idealized romanticism that he’s seen in musicals, she’s clinging on to routine and the hope that the road ahead won’t be so treacherous.

I want to return to the title. There’s a deliberate vagueness to the wordplay that allows the viewer to apply the phrase to their own circumstances. Its like Kaufman wrote this film about you – ‘that’s what one hopes for, I guess’. Lurking all throughout is that element of concealed decay, that’s represented brilliantly by the bleak colours of the set. Early on they go to a farm and while their journey starts off sweet, they soon find a pig pen. Jake explains that the pigs had been infested with maggots that slowly ate them alive. There’s this stench of corruption that permeates even the nice moments. When they reach an ice cream parlor on thier way home, the contrast between the vein, dolled up waitresses and the humble serving girl with a rash, proves a vital instance of how the film communicates with the viewer. I had to watch the film several times and look out for those miniscule indicators of facial expression, tone of voice, timing.

Ultimately, if the girlfriend dosent face up to her emotions, either with her relationship or those revealed in the depressive monologue which opens the movie, then she will become like the pig, slowly being eaten alive by her own anxieties. Time bends around Jakes childhood home. The parents start to change age, becoming suddenly a lot older or younger as if to represent alternative futures and pasts for our main characters. When the couple first arrive at the parents house, the mother and the uncertainly named girlfriend wave at each other for a long time, owing to that idea of being stationary, not moving forward for fear of the unknown.

Its when they start driving home through the blizzard that things start to get really interesting. Our two lead characters start talking about another movie centred on a relationship, and while the boyfriend is a fan and sympathetic to the characters, the girlfriend starts reciting a scathing review, where she deconstructs the characters and the narrative, adopting an uppity sneer in doing so. This is in my view the most revealing moment – the boyfriend is empathetic to the concept of established narratives and expects his relationship to be a successful one. The girlfriend on the other hand, while desiring safety, has contempt for narratives as a whole. Its incredibly relatable – I’ve found myself creating those expectations to do with how I expect my life to pan out, only to be disappointed upon noticing I have pinned my hopes on a fiction.

In the final scenes we come to Jakes old school, where he goes missing in an attempt to confront someone he believes is watching him. Its here that we meet the janitor – a character who you have great sympathy for when you realise that this is the Jake who didn’t get to live out his fantasies. Saddest of all he still has that sentimentality, despite being seen by the world as just another old man. What follows is a dance scene between two caricatures of Jake and the uncertainly named girl, which feels reminiscent of a romance from Oklahoma or any number of assorted fairy stories. Constantly, the janitor figure tries to interrupt the dance, either in an attempt to wrench back that youthful innocence or to break apart this fictionalized image of this perfect relationship and restore ‘reality’.

One of the most poignant lines comes not from any of the main characters. Its not clear who the speaker is but the line runs ‘Someone has to be a pig infested with maggots, it might as well be you’. Its a dejected quote, which says you might as well be resigned to stay in situations where you are not in control of your life. Are we just part of somebody else’s narrative, constructed for us so they can say ‘I succeeded’? Or are we free actors, in control of our own lives, but naively setting expectations for ourselves? Indeed, isn’t it normal to fall into a routine of setting narratives and fantasies for ourselves, only to be upset when we witness them collapse?

‘It’s tragic how few people possess their souls before they die. Nothing is more rare in any man, says Emerson, than an act of his own. And it’s quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions. Their lives a mimicry. Their passions a quotation’

Uncertainly named Girlfriend, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things

Considering this is a film designed to be interpreted, how do we square its themes with an overall understanding of autism? My past few works have been about the phenomenon of trying to mask ourselves to fit in. In that sense, many autisitc people are in service to a fictional narrative of normality that others construct for us, and can very easily relate to the girl. Still, there’s a lot of common ground the autistic viewer could find in painting an image in ones head of how you want your life to look. If you look through my past blog posts you’ll see numerous cases of where reality has confounded my narrative. Like the boy in the story, I have quite a sentimental worldview and find falling into those ways of thinking incredibly tempting. There’s more I have never told my readers about. Part of the reason this film works so well is that like a sad landscape painting, we see ourselves in these stories. We all have elements in our life at some point which we think of ending. We keep them close to our chest and mull over them because we don’t want to upset other people. Its that nebulous of doubt and uncertainty inhabiting this movie that makes viewing a relatable and sobering experience.

‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ is available to view on Netflix.

Netflix reality ‘Love on the Spectrum’ is kind yet clumsy – An Atypical Review

Welcome to a new feature on atypical perspectives where I review a piece of media thats either about autism or resonates with me as an autistic person, through an ‘atypical’ lens. Like the pieces of prose I occasionally do, this provides a break from the in depth pieces, which are still the focus of this blog.

One subject I have not talked about on this blog before is relationships of the romantic nature. Struggles with communication do of course impact on autistic peoples ability to form those sorts of connections, including myself. For instance, I do feel comfortable telling you that being in my mid 20s without ever having been in a relationship serves as one source of anxiety for me, and many individuals on the spectrum are in the same place. While my experiences with emotion or going on dates has informed my review, I have leant closer to criticizing the programmes understanding of autism.

That said, I am uneasy about the treatment of autism and romance in popular media like its a novel phenomenon. ‘Love on the spectrum’ is no exception, but one positive is that on the whole, the show is honest. To clarify, all the relationships on the show are real and none of the processes of dates or ‘getting to know each other’ appear all that manipulated for ratings. Some of the events leading up to the dates do; I would rather more detail on how these people came to meet. That said, the show makes an effort to show different autisitc people at different stages: some like Michael have never been in a relationship, some like Chloe are in the stage of meeting people, and others like Ruth and Thomas are in relationships. Contrary to the sensationalism of a show like Channel 4’s ‘the undateables’ you can treat this like more of documentary about the lives of autistic people looking for love…Or at least, you could if the show didn’t decide to play so fast and loose with the facts and advice handed out.

I went to a pride event once. Participating in the parade was an autistic charity who had placards decorated with factoids including ‘only five percent of autisitc adults ever find love’. My friend – who is also autisitc – turned to me and said “they’ll believe what they want to believe”. I bring this up because its a widely accepted distortion of a 2018 study about marriage, made all the more popular by the fact that Olivia, a participant who provides facts and commentary throughout the show, repeats this idea. I don’t blame her, nor did I expect the production crew to correct her there and then. However, cutting the mistake might have been useful and the show might have benefitted from a wider focus on myth busting.

I do admire a popular programme with the word ‘love’ in the title actually showing the audience what love can realistically look like. Chloe is nervous about dating after a breakup but after one awkward date, has a beautiful one picking sunflowers with a girl named Lotus. Seeing her get back on her feet and grow her confidence across five episodes actually does live up to that occasionally condescending description of heartwarming. On another note, its a lot of fun seeing Ruth joke about her “nerdiness” in front of her fiancé Thomas and to see him explaining that he’s “just autisitc enough to understand Ruth”. However there are equally as many moments which baffled me. Chief among them is when the production crew, seemingly out of nowhere, ask Sharnae and Jimmy – a couple who are moving in together – if they have “consummated thier relationship”. All that this achieves is to make the participants and viewers feel awkward, furthering the idea that autisitc relationships are somehow inherently different to ‘normal ones’.

The ‘Love on the Spectrum Cast’ explain where they are now!

This brings me to the way the show behaves towards participants. Being on Netflix, its aimed primarily at neurotypicals. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, however no preconceptions are challenged. All the dates are strictly between autistic people, which dosent do much to further the idea that we can and do date non-autistics. The background music feels inappropriate, swaying between overly cutesy like watching a doc on clumsy baby penguins, and ridiculously dramatic as if the dates on the show are life or death. Some of the attempts at humour are equally as tone deaf. In one moment, Maddi attends a fancy dress party for disabled people. With encouragement from the producers and her parents, she is literally pushed and pulled into using the event to try and find a partner. What follows is a filmed recounting of the awkward conversations she had as a result of being under pressure. While I have seen terms like ‘heartwarming’ used to describe this show, some moments are extremely uncomfortable viewing, giving the impression of a disrespectful spectator sport intended for an entirely non-autistic audience.

Even though the show has decided to help autistic people find love with each other, the producers seem oddly hung up on getting them to perform ‘normality’. A counselor named Jodi Rodgers provides support to some participants, and helps to shore up thier confidence, but some of advice she gives seems unnecessary: make eye contact, don’t talk about your ‘special interests’ too much. Its the same with the PEERS programme which features on the show – advice has its place but encouraging people on the spectrum to point out each others faults in the hope that they might date ‘like a neurotype’ undermines their individuality and gives the impression that in order to be happy they must master ‘le technique’.

Despite that, at its most endearing the show actually portrays scenes of people embracing each others autism in all aspects. One moment I paticulary liked followed Michael’s first date with Amanda, where she became overwhelmed by the formality of the restaurant. Michael accepts her decision to end the date early and they agree to go to a comic convention together, where they both have a great time, despite accepting that they’re friends and nothing more. This shows a process of mutual respect and learning. Similarly, prior to his date with Sharnae, Jimmy becomes agitated by the fact that his socks are black and not navy blue – with understanding tone and demeanor, Sharnae goes with him to the shop, they find navy blue socks, and have a lovely evening. These scenes help normalize autisitc quirks. Peronally, I get uneasy when I forget my watch when leaving the house, as having that one item with me gives me great comfort. These were rare scenes of unbiased and non-judgmental acceptance.

An aspect I would have liked to have seen more of, was the breaking of the fourth wall. Personally, I would feel under a great amount of anxiousness in a situation where I’m not only under pressure to impress a date, but also to seem ‘media savvy’. Still, the fact that they often turn to the camera to tell them to temporarily leave them alone or to clear up misconceptions, does show a laudable level of trust has been established between the production workers and the participants. Theres a worry with these sorts of programmes that the crew may cross boundaries. When creating or helping to make media about autism, theres always the danger of potentially revealing information about oneself that could be misunderstood or taken out of context. I reworded the intro of this blog 10 times before I was comfortable in what I was releasing. Certainly the people designated to work on this series should be aware of the discrimination autisitcs face, so that they do not nudge participants towards situations which may affect thier lives offscreen. As we’ve seen, the behaviour of the producers is mixed, so conclusions on that question are unclear. Thomas even makes a joke about this when Ruth compares thier anniversary picnic to ‘the Bachelor’. “Well it should be cause its all scripted” he quips, joking to the camera “excuse me, who forgot to email my girlfriend her script”.

Chloe’s date with Lotus proved one of the most popular on the show!

Of course, if we are to have any serious disscussion of this show, we need to talk about its representation. It balances male and female well but dosen’t explore gender on any deeper level. Outside of Chloe and Lotus which is really well presented, there is not much Lesbian, Gay or Bi representation. This is in spite of the fact that research continues to show that autistics are more likely to be on the LGBTQ+ spectrum or just reject conventional sexual labels altogether. The show is even more disappointing on race. Almost the entire cast is white. While these might seem like minor complaints, when a popular Netflix show with the word spectrum in the title does little to depict the full length and breath of people who are autisitc, that furthers the impression that I’m getting from the programme as whole, that it dosent want to do anything to challenge the viewer, or represent autism in unique and diverse ways.

Overall, Love On the Spectrum has the potential to combat misrepresentations about autisitc peoples ability to feel love or empathy, open minds to a whole new audience of viewers, and start conversations about autism and autisitc stories. When those moments shine through or we get a moment of pure acceptance, the show can make me beam with delight and happiness for the cast. Too often though, the creators feel conscious of thier audience and what they expect to see, rather than what they need to see. At best, this serves to dull the impact and at worst forces the subjects into uncomfortable situations. Put simply, this show feels like autistic people being used as inspiration for neurotypical people to reflect on thier own relationships. I respect the creators evidently good intentions and I did mostly enjoy watching. Still, in perhaps the most honest monologue throughout the entire series Michael says there is no such thing as the ‘perfect relationship’ because everyone’s different, and that couples can only try thier best to accept each other. Its a lesson which the show overall would do well to learn from, ahead of any potential second season.

Love on the Spectrum is available to view on Netflix.