The Story of Luke

The Story of Luke deals with a young man with autism, abandoned in infancy by his mother and raised by his grandparents. His grandmother, as his primary caregiver, had perhaps sheltered him more than she should have. Luke gets home schooled and/or takes distance learning classes for high school. He lacks vocational training or any sort of transition plan. When his grandmother dies, he is forced to move in with his Uncle Paul and Aunt Cindy, who have issues of their own (she’s on antidepressants, and he’s just a pill), and two younger (presumably) “normal” children. There are some scenes where “what to do about Luke” is discussed among others, and he overhears. Aunt Cindy has delicate sensibilities, and must have deep pockets as well, because she has the grandfather admitted to a nursing home following an incident where he attempts to grab her posterior, and offers her $20. At a rest stop on the way to the nursing home, Luke’s grandfather tells him that Luke is now a man and must live his own life, including getting a job and finding a woman who “is willing to travel and doesn’t nag too much”. At the rest stop, Luke meets a sympathetic convenience store clerk who gives him a pile of pornographic magazines when he asks about “screwing”. Luke’s final conversation with his grandfather has a strong impact on the boy, who decides, despite the challenges faced by his condition, to try to get a job and a girlfriend. These pursuits are made more challenging than they had to be by the fact that he lacks transportation, and his aunt is initially against him attempting to get a job. She comes around, when she realizes that enforced idleness and lacking the opportunity to acquire an adult role could be harmful and depressing to him as well.
Luke is not the “stereotypical autistic”. He speaks and responds to others, though stilted delivery and the repetition of common sayings act as an indicator that he does not have the spontaneity that others do, and the clearly-shown anxiety with every challenging situation he encounters hints at what lies beneath the polite well-groomed young man’s attempt at maintaining a socially-appropriate mien. He walks down the street covering his ears when loud sounds overwhelm him, and significantly sits in the seats reserved for the handicapped when he takes the bus. Some situations provoke a bit of mild “stimming”. Though he discloses some talent at preparing dishes he had seen made on cooking shows on TV, he denies any specialized or savant skills. When asked about his condition, though some call him “a retard” or say he has autism, he claims “my grandmother told me that I defy clinical categorization”.
The grandfather, who seems physically healthy other than an incident of incontinence and the revival of a smoking habit, dies conveniently the next time Luke is given the opportunity to visit the nursing home.
After he settles in with his aunt and uncle, Luke at first unsuccessfully pursues both work and love, signing up with a temp agency where he meets an older black woman “with nice tits”, who works as the receptionist, and is later the first woman he asks for a date. He finds out about a company that could help him, with a program called the Smile, which hires and trains people on the autistic spectrum for menial jobs within corporations. The owner, in fact, has an autistic son who works for him, Zack, supervisor of the new apprentices. Zack is bitter and abrasive, and feels a need to prove himself to his father. Luke is then hired as an apprentice and in spite of Zack yelling at him and being less than clear about some of his initial job responsibilities, he proves himself able to adapt. His resourcefulness and desire to ask out the girl at the temp agency hits Zack, who decides to try to help him, which has the result of helping himself at the same time.
Zack teaches Luke to carefully observe and mimic the body language and non-verbal interactions of “NTs”, or “neurotypical” people, and then shows him simulator software he developed which has on-screen virtual faces and personas responding in real time to Luke’s interactions with them. In spite of this unique training tool for human interaction, Luke still gets rejected when he asks the woman on a date. Zack ends up getting it used for customer service within the company, and hopefully, redeeming himself in his father’s eyes. Luke starts looking exceptionally personable and capable, and lands a long term job with the company.
In the meantime, Luke’s aunt, uncle, and cousins have been warming up to him, and discover the whereabouts of his mother. Zack helps groom Luke for the occasion and accompanies him when he decides to meet his mother. Luke discovers that his mother has another grown son and a family who doesn’t know about Luke, and she would prefer to keep it that way. Though Luke is disappointed that his reunion with his mother wasn’t a happy and loving one, by NT standards, he does get closure on why she acted as she did: “I didn’t think I would ever hear you talk to me” she said.

Filmmaker Sheds Light on Mental Illness

From Huffington Post.com: Filmmaker Sheds Light on Mental Illness
by Gregory G. Allen
Adversity and Diversity author
There is a new film hitting the film festivals with a very heavy subject. French filmmaker Jonathan Bucari has written and directed a short film about mental illness and the effects it has on a family. There are many families across American (and the world) that silently deal with this daily and after viewing “Illness”, I knew I wanted to speak to Jonathan.

Gregory G. Allen: Having seen a screening of your film, Jonathan, I can attest firsthand how powerful it is in depicting the lives of this one family. What drew you to this story?
Jonathan Bucari: The topic of mental illness has been on my mind for many years. I grew up with a sister who has Downs Syndrome and when she was little she lived in an institution. She was living with children with all kinds of different backgrounds and emotional and mental disabilities. I recall visiting her and meeting kids with a variety of mental disorders. On one of my visits when I was about 7 years old I saw a very young boy having an “episode” and I was very shocked. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t understand and nobody explained it to me. After 20 years, I can still remember that scene, which was the initial inspiration for the story of “illness.”

When I came to the United States, I was struck by the fact mental illness was often associated with violence and mass shootings, reinforcing an assumption that people with mental illness were dangerous to society. In fact, people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators and, of course, discussions like these only reinforce the awful stigma that surrounds mental illness.
Allen: I grew up as a foster family and recall one child having some major emotional breakdowns. At the time, we weren’t sure if mental illness was to blame or not as he came and left our lives so quickly. You capture that so adeptly in your film. How was it to work with the young children in your film on this mature topic?

Bucari: I thought at first that working with such a young cast would be difficult, but working with Noah Silverman and Julian Murdoch was a real pleasure. Both of them have real maturity for their age and seemed to understand the topic well for boys their age. I was actually very honored to work with Noah, who plays Timothy. One of Noah’s older brothers suffers from Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety and Depression, so the topic was really important to him. Not only did Noah want to make sure the film was accurate, but he also wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t portray Timothy as a bad person or a monster.

Finding Timothy’s little brother was more complex. I had worked with Julian before so I was confident in his acting capability, but I was a bit worried about the maturity of the material. Julian is extraordinarily mature for his age and his family has been extremely supportive of the film. They are also very interested in raising awareness of mental illness.

It really was a pleasure working with all of the young people in the cast. We made sure that everyone felt very safe and comfortable. The first time the cast met, everyone seemed to bond and become a real family instantly. Cheryl Allison, who played the mom in the film, really went out of her way to connect with the boys to make sure that they felt at ease. We were also very lucky to have Renae Baker on the team, who is a great child acting coach. It was a pleasure working with all of them.
Bucari: When I was writing the story I needed a catalyst, something dramatic enough to raise awareness of the reality of children’s mental health issues and to raise an important question: what could happen if a child has a mental illness that is left untreated? Even though the shooting is barely mentioned in the film, it was important to me to connect the story of this family to what is happening in the real world. Every mother can relate to our mother in the film, especially when she learns about the shooting. What happened in Newtown was a tragedy beyond words, but it seemed to be the first time that people started discussing mental illness in a way that acknowledged that the underlying problem is lack of treatment. One out of every five kids suffers from a mental health disorder at any given time.
Allen: Those are amazing numbers. I had no idea. People usually fear what they don’t know – and I’m sure many people do not understand what happens behind closed doors in the families of someone with mental illness. Were you at all concerned about the light your film shines on this illness?

Bucari: Mental illness seems to be treated like cancer was 20 years ago. Everyone is afraid of the word and no one fully understands how it is affecting us. Some parents just don’t want to label their kids and many other are just afraid and blame themselves. They live in shame that the society will never accept them and don’t know where to turn for help.

Allen: I know you share several facts in the teaser for the film, but have you talked to many families that live this life either before writing it or since screening it?
Bucari: We were very fortunate and honored to have Randi Silverman as our associate producer. She is a cancer survivor and a parent of a bipolar child. I met her after writing the first draft of the story and she was blown away by how realistic and powerful the script was. I didn’t realize until I spoke with her about her personal experiences just how close to reality I was. She helped make sure that the script was as realistic as possible and spent a great deal of time talking with us about what it really is like to raise a child with a serious mental health disorder.

My story became her story. Our goal was to make sure that the character with a mental illness was not portrayed as a monster or a sociopath, which is what we have seen before on films. We wanted to tell a story of a wonderful, smart kid who is struggling everyday day with an illness so terrible that no words can describe it.

What makes our film special is the fact that in real life Noah was the little brother in my story. Now he is playing the part of the older brother suffering with the illness.
Allen: The story surrounding the film seems just as powerful that so many involved had a stake in it. What is your hope for the film? What do you want people to take away from it?

Bucari: Our hope for the film is to share it with as many people as we can and screen it wherever we can.

One of the next steps for the film is to wait and see where the world premiere is going to be and which Festival will be the first. We already submitted to more than 35 festivals all over the world.

After a year or so of promoting it through Film Festivals, we would like to give the film a Second Life by using it to promote awareness of children and adolescent mental health issues and to fight the stigma associated with mental illness. Ultimately, our main goal is to help families get help for their kids and restore hope for them.

Allen: Where can people find more information about it?

Bucari: You can find information about the movie on IMDb and of course on our Facebook page.

Allen: Thank you for not only bringing this topic into focus, but spending time to discuss it with me today. I do believe the more people that discuss a topic (whatever that may be), the less fear people will have about it.

Official trailer of Illness available via IMDb.

It’s Kind Of A Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a movie based on It’s Kind of a Funny Story by former NYPress columnist Ned Vizzini, is a (mostly) realistic portrayal of a high-achieving teenager who also has a case of high anxiety and projectile “stress vomiting”. Craig Gilner, a 16 year old in a prestigious, competitive NYC high school with a stable, middle-class family, has a lot of “little” problems, but the pressures to succeed academically, join a prestigious summer program, and work towards going on to a good college and a good job are building up on him, and he is having suicidal thoughts, including a vivid dream of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

He initially calls a suicide hotline, but ends up just showing up at a fictional hospital, walking into the ER, and checking himself in on the grounds that he is suicidal. In the waiting room of the ER, he meets Bobby, a character he initially thinks is a doctor, but whom he later discovers to be a patient in the hospital’s psych ward when he ends up there.

Craig and Bobby in the ER

Craig and Bobby meet in the Emergency Room

One of the deleted scenes included on the DVD version of the movie shows a call to a suicide hotline which is largely ineffective except for the volunteer’s recommendation that he should go to a hospital because “suicide is a medical illness”. As such, when he gets to the hospital, he fully expects to be given a pill or a shot, along with a few words of encouragement, and quickly released. Not so. He is told that he will be staying for at least 5 days.

To Craig’s surprise, the adolescent wing is “under renovation”, thus requiring the hospital to place adolescent patients in the adult psychiatric ward. In New York, it is perfectly legal to have adolescents 13 and over committed to mental hospitals and wards serving an adult population. It is also legal to send children age five and over to mental hospitals where adults are committed.

In fact, such a situation is more common than not in New York City. New York has a dearth of adolescent mental health services, and adolescent-only wards or institutions are small population and relative rarities.

Craig is given the tour of the ward and discovers that his new roommate is a middle-aged depressive named Mustafa who never gets out of bed. Unlike Mustapha, Craig still “functions” and does so well enough for there to have been no obvious problems (he didn’t lose his place as an honor student, although he displays some serious anxiety about this possibility) other than his previous prescription for Zoloft. Bearded Bobby soon becomes a mentor and a father figure.

Among the unrealistic elements in the movie, patients routinely don doctors’ white coats and scrubs and sneak out of the psych ward incognito in this fashion. In of these instances, Bobby bribes the janitor with a couple of pills to let him and Craig have the use of an unrealistically large gymnasium, where the pair shoot baskets, and Bobby gives Craig advice on asking out Noelle, another teen patient in the facility. It might be realistic that in such a situation of adolescents confined with adults, an adult patient may become a mentor to a teen, but it is just as realistic that adults might take advantage of teens in multitudinous ways not shown or discussed in the movie, but implied when it is pointed out that there is no lock on the shower room door.
One of the other realistic elements in the portrayal of the psych ward would be the practical problems disclosed by many of the patients in the adult psych ward. Rarely do they have any money beyond petty cash, and even that takes some time and ingenuity to pool to have enough for a patients’ pizza party. Those who are getting released have to figure out where to go and what to do next. This is indirectly portrayed by muted but anxiety ridden phone conversations on the part of other patients who say things like “I don’t have a job lined up yet”, and Bobby’s upcoming interview for admission to a group home, for which Craig lends him a button-down shirt belonging to his father, because Bobby does not have a dress shirt with him in the ward, or anyone on the outside willing or able to bring him one.
Also somewhat unrealistically, in his five days in the hospital, Craig manages to cure his eating disorder, successfully develop a relationship with Noelle, find a record with Egyptian music that gets Mustapha out of bed and joining the patients’ pizza party, realize he wants to take an art class, stand up to his father, and becomes determined to return to the hospital and volunteer there.