The Sunshine Boy (Sólskinsdrengurinn) (Director: Friðrik Þór Friðriksson): Featuring narration by Kate Winslet and a soundtrack bursting with Sigur Rós and Björk tunes, this documentary about a mother’s search for treatment for her autistic son will likely reach a wide audience, and deservedly so. This still-misunderstood condition affects about 1 in every 150 births now, and seems to be on the rise. Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir was frustrated at the lack of treatment options in her native Iceland and she decided to travel to America with filmmaker Friðriksson in tow to document her search for alternatives for her 11-year-old son Keli. She speaks to autism experts like Temple Grandin and Simon Baron-Cohen, but also visits with families of autistic children who share their own successes and frustrations in coping with the condition.
Eventually, she finds her way to the HALO (Helping Autism through Learning and Outreach) program in Austin, Texas. The program’s tiny and tireless founder, Soma Mukhopadhyay, has developed a technique she calls the Rapid Prompting Method which allows non-verbal autistic kids to develop their communication skills quickly. The results are impressive, and parents report being amazed to discover their children already knew so much, but just couldn’t express their knowledge. Eventually Keli is enrolled in Soma’s program and makes remarkable progress.
The decision to have Kate Winslet read Margret’s narration is understandable, but in the end I don’t think it helps the film. Despite Winslet’s “name” value, the narration removes Margret slightly from her own story, and the scenes where she actually does speak on camera have actually been dubbed by Winslet. Her husband’s voice is also dubbed by an American voice actor, and these scenes really pulled me out of the story. Some scenes of the family shot in Iceland also sort of struck me as having the flavour of a tourist brochure, although it’s hard to point a camera in Iceland and not come up with spectacular images. But the end result was that at several times when I should have been more emotionally invested, something pulled me out of the story.
Autism is a serious condition that has been getting quite a bit of attention from filmmakers lately. The recent release of the similarly-named doc The Horse Boy (review) covers some of the same ground, although the treatment explored in that film was quite different. (Strangely, though, that family lives quite near Austin, Texas as well, and must be aware of the HALO clinic). With the explosion in interest in autism, it’s lamentable that some of the same experts end up saying the same things in several different films. That being said, The Sunshine Boy will reach and educate a whole new audience, and if that helps families who are coping with autism, then the film is a success.
Here is the Q&A with director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson and producer Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir from after the screening:
The following trailer was created before Kate Winslet’s narration was completed, so there are a few subtitles.