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Wretches & Jabberers

Movie Review

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How do you communicate a failure to communicate? In the documentary Wretches & Jabberers, Larry Bissonnette of Milton, Vt., has a wonderful answer to that conundrum.

Bissonnette, 53, an artist whose work has been displayed locally and internationally, is autistic and uses primarily the written word to communicate. Asked at a conference how he can educate others about his condition, he types: “Learning about autism requires a storytelling about human experience which is weird and offbeat like primitive silent film, and that is not what people want to see.”

Director Gerardine Wurzburg, who also made the Oscar-nominated short “Autism Is a World,” clearly knows what people want to see. Her film, which follows Bissonnette and fellow autistic Vermonter Tracy Thresher from Church Street to Sri Lanka to Japan to Finland, is not “weird and offbeat.” Aside from its provocative title, Wretches & Jabberers plays it pretty safe; this is crowd-pleasing advocacy filmmaking.

Wurzburg’s simple storytelling and upbeat tone help explain why Wretches & Jabberers, which had its American premiere last fall at the Vermont International Film Festival, is getting a nationwide April run in AMC Theatres. (In Vermont, it plays at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington starting Friday.) If it’s possible to make a happy movie about people whose brain chemistry makes it difficult for them to communicate their needs and show their intelligence to others, this is it.

But there is also a complexity and a darkness at the heart of Wretches & Jabberers — a darkness expressed in the title, which comes from the mind of a young Finn with autism named Antti. People like himself, Bissonnette and Thresher are “wretches,” he types, suffering mainly in silence. The world belongs to the rest of us — the “jabberers” whose love affair with the sound of their own voices makes them oblivious to others’ inner worlds. It’s an observation worthy of a Scandinavian.

But jabberers can stop and listen — and the more we listen to Bissonnette, Thresher and their new friends, the more we learn. The two Vermonters, who travel the world accompanied by their assistants, riff off each other like a comedy team.

They have serious moments, too. In one scene, Thresher, 43, who has no fixed abode, goes to Montpelier to talk with now-Lt. Gov. Phil Scott about the uncertain future of Vermont’s disability-assistance funding. Struggling to convey how vital the issue is, Thresher becomes so upset he can’t type, then recovers and asks Scott to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Some of us may be smoother tongued, but we all have the “man behind the curtain” — the self that hides, working the gears, and sometimes goes haywire.

It’s not easy to give dynamism to a film about people tapping on keyboards. Wurzburg compensates with changing, colorful settings and on-screen graphics that highlight phrases from the subjects’ typed speech. The same words find their way into songs by composer J. Ralph, who recruited big names — from Norah Jones to Devendra Banhart — to contribute to the soundtrack. The technique doesn’t always work: Utterances that are poignant in isolation — such as “It’s killingly hard to say what I feel” — can turn treacly and overbearing when set to music.

Wretches & Jabberers can be manipulative, and it doesn’t place the people it showcases in the broader (and combative) ongoing discussion of autism-spectrum disorders. But these people are still well worth your acquaintance. Ninety minutes on the road with Bissonnette and Thresher are a trip.

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