D: Alex Lehmann / 84m
With: Noah Britton, Ethan Finlan, Jack Hanke, New Michael Ingemi
In 2010, at a summer camp for children with autism in Massachusetts, graduates New Michael Ingemi, Jack Hanke and Ethan Finlan met camp counsellor Noah Britton (himself an autism sufferer). Finding that they all shared the same sense of humour, they decided to form the world’s first comedy troupe made up entirely of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. They called the troupe, Asperger’s Are Us, began putting together original comedy sketches, and eventually, doing gigs. Their aim was to use performances and interviews to promote autism-rights activism and the more positive aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. They also wanted audiences to view them as just comedians instead of “people who’ve overcome adversity”.
Four years on, Asperger’s Are Us played their final performance due to Jack heading off to England on a scholarship to an Oxford university. In the weeks leading up to the show, they struggled to find all-new material to use, and also had problems finding the time to rehearse. During this period they were never sure where their venue was going to be, whether or not they should rely on old material mixed with new, or if any of it was going to work. Their main idea, Superhero Palace, was disliked from the start by New Michael, and there were fears that if it became part of the show, then New Michael wouldn’t take part in it. Eventually, all the potential hurdles were overcome, and the show took place.
The best thing about Asperger’s Are Us the movie rather than Asperger’s Are Us the comedy troupe is that it doesn’t have an agenda, or at least, not a social or political one. The members of the group aren’t poster boys for autism, they’re not out to score points for “overcoming adversity”, and nor are they advocates for any kind of “special treatment” for people with autism. Even though some of these things do creep into their performances, they’re not there deliberately. And the quartet do their best to be funny – and that’s all. By using a mixture of visual tomfoolery, clever wordplay, and pop culture references, Asperger’s Are Us have earned the right to be thought of first and foremost as comedians, and as people with autism second.
But no matter how much the troupe, or director/cinematographer/editor Alex Lehmann, tries to downplay their various social anxieties, intimacy issues (Jack’s dad bemoans the fact that when he shows affection to his son there’s no reaction), and emotional detachments, it’s obvious from their behaviour – either individually or as a group – that their autistic nature is a very big part of who they are, and also how they’re able to do what they do. There’s a point where Noah states that they don’t put on their shows for other people, they put them on because they want to do it, they’re performing material that makes them laugh even if no one else is, and if an audience “gets” what they’re trying to do and say, then that’s a bonus. In a very real sense, if they weren’t autistic, they wouldn’t be doing what they’ve been doing.
It’s an angle that the movie engages with from time to time, but never pins down in terms of how the four friends feel about their act, or each other. The relationship between Noah and New Michael gets quite a bit of screen time, and in many ways, it’s this that drives the narrative forward, as they disagree and argue like brothers, while Jack and Ethan look on from the sidelines. In a very telling scene, New Michael equates the foursome to The Beatles, and says that, for people looking in from the outside, Noah is the group’s John Lennon, and he is Paul McCartney. If you’re not paying close attention it sounds as if New Michael (he changed his name from Aaron when he was eighteen) is claiming kinship with McCartney, while making Noah sound as if he isn’t completely worthy of all the praise the troupe has been getting (Noah initiates much of the group’s material, and from that you can understand what New Michael is saying). Pay much closer attention though, and you’ll realise that New Michael is pulling the audience’s combined legs very subtly indeed. There’s a nuance in use here that is at odds with people’s (often limited) awareness of autism, and as such it’s very telling.
But as Lehmann has followed the group in the two months prior to their final performance, there’s plenty of footage of the group rehearsing, travelling from place to place within Massachusetts (trains are very important to them, especially Ethan), and except for Noah, with their families. It’s in these moments that the wider issue of dealing with autism is put into sharp relief. While New Michael has little to say about, or do with his father (“Old Michael”), Jack’s relationship with his parents is stable, but we never learn much about Ethan and his background. Noah has no one, but seems to prefer it that way, and though New Michael does introduce a female friend, she’s soon relegated to the background. It’s only when the four are together that we see them interact in a “normal” way, joking around, sharing ideas and thoughts (and the occasional dream), and behaving like brothers from different mothers. And when New Michael reacts badly to everyone being in his home for a rehearsal meeting, Noah’s indifference to how he feels is uncomfortable to watch, and yet refreshingly at odds with how New Michael would be treated by his family or others. For Noah, out of line is out of line, whether you’ve got Asperger’s or not.
Moments like these are enlightening to say the least, and there are many more that are poignant as well, but Lehmann’s skill as an editor means that they don’t overwhelm the disjointed yet cleverly assembled narrative. As the final show draws nearer and nearer, we see the sketches and the performances slowly take shape, and we see the group’s pride in what they’ve achieved. And their material is very, very funny indeed (the Presidential press conference is a highlight, especially if you’ve been paying attention to all the train references). And away from the stage they’re funny, with Noah wearing T-shirts with slogans on them such as “Ask me about my fear of strangers”, and Ethan hoodwinking Lehmann by dishing the dirt on his friends before confessing it’s all a joke. These are four guys who, despite their autism (or maybe because of it), are all talented comedians.
The movie as a whole is remarkably well-assembled, with personal contributions from each member of the group and where applicable, their families. The family dynamic surrounding New Michael is explored in some depth, and it’s here that the poignancy comes in, as Old Michael confesses that his work ethic in the past has caused the distance between him and New Michael to be so pronounced. Neither father nor son seems to know how to repair things, and their relationship remains a terse affair that only benefits them for brief moments at a time. Lehmann captures a terrible sense of sad inevitability in these moments, and the awkwardness between the two is heartbreaking. You can’t help but hope for the best for them both, and that New Michael will eventually overcome his feelings of not being good enough for his father. Whether or not that happens only time will tell, but for now, like the futures of all the troupe, everything looks very promising indeed.
Rating: 8/10 – a moving examination of four people with autism who have no time for pity, and whose collective sense of humour is disarmingly sharp, Asperger’s Are Us is a terrific documentary and a wonderful tribute to the group as a whole; whatever your thoughts on, or experience of, autism, this movie does what all good documentaries should do: it informs and educates and entertains (where possible) all at the same time.