We’ve come a long way since the savant stereotypes of “Rain Man.”
Though the media can and still should work harder to accurately depict autism and delineate the singular realities of life for those on its expansive spectrum, deft and compassionate portrayals of people living with the disorder are much more commonplace than they used to be — especially, as seems to be the trend these days, on the small screen.
In recent years, “Parenthood,” “Skins,” and “The Bridge” have stood out as series that not only featured characters with autism but went to great lengths to embrace the diverse experiences of those in its community. But autism likely has never received a dramatic showcase as smart, sensitive, or sustained as “The A Word,” a six-part British series (itself a reworking of Israeli drama “Yellow Peppers”) debuting stateside on SundanceTV Wednesday.
The work of writer-producer Peter Bowker, who spent 14 years as a teacher to children with disabilities, the show focuses on 5-year-old Joe Hughes (the remarkable Max Vento) and his family — all residents of a sleepy, everybody-talks kind of town in England’s mountainous Lake District — in the weeks after he’s been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. “The A Word” is primarily about the disorder and its impact, but also broadly concerned with the issues of communication that plague every member of the Hughes household.
Such an approach proves wise, placing appropriate emphasis not just on Joe’s life and the complex role autism plays within it, but on others in his orbit. “The A Word” drolly — if a tad facetiously — suggests that the Hugheses’ shared inability to talk to one another could signify a more challenging obstacle than interacting with the often silent Joe.
There’s inflexible family patriarch Maurice (Christopher Eccleston), who’s prone to fleeing tough conversations to jog obsessively across fog-laden, picturesque crags. His daughter, loving but fierce mother Alison (Morven Christie), copes with Joe’s autism by trying to control him in ways both selfish and unsustainable. Her husband, Paul (Lee Ingleby), masks mixed feelings about the diagnosis by painting Joe as an Einsteinian curator of the punk music he’s actually using to keep the strange and overwhelming world around him at bay.
Adding more tension to the homestead are Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) and his wife, Nicola (Vinette Robinson), attempting to rebuild their relationship after the one-two punch of his business failing and Nicola having an affair. Meanwhile, Alison’s daughter Rebecca (Molly Wright) hangs back at the edges of the frame, silent and sullen but clearly suffering from her parents’ all-consuming dedication to Joe.
Laying out the drama’s central players and their respective baggage makes “The A Word” sound like a sudsy mess of assorted marital, familial, and generational tensions. So credit Bowker’s extraordinary actors for infusing the setup with authentic heart and humor. Though Vento is the standout, consistently holding the screen and drawing the audience into Joe’s head throughout a compelling yet largely nonverbal performance, all of the cast are aces. It’s their grounded, believable chemistry that keeps “The A Word” from sliding into silly, saccharine territory.
But what’s most impressive about the drama is its attention to detail. “The A Word” is a series of small moments, ones that sneak up on you forcefully and with unflinching honesty. Bowker’s history in the classroom, which encompassed working with children on the spectrum, shines through in how pragmatically and precisely “The A Word” charts autism’s hardships.
There’s a scene in which Alison and Paul throw Joe a birthday party, inviting his peers and wheeling out a cake. But when it comes time to blow out the candles, Joe freezes. Retreating into himself, he winds up motionless on the floor as his parents work patiently to draw him back out.
That scene sets the tone for the rest of this poignant series, as the Hugheses wage two linked yet separate battles. The first is conscious: to break through the silence of autism and communicate with Joe. But as the series goes on, the family grows to recognize a second, subconscious struggle: to understand Joe as different, not defective, and to learn to live with his diagnosis, not despite it. What drives the show forward, and makes it a landmark portrayal of a disorder too often stigmatized or left undiscussed, is that second, all-important A Word: acceptance.
THE A WORD
Starring: Max Vento, Lee Ingleby, Morven Christie, Christopher Eccleston, Greg McHugh, Molly Wright, Vinette Robinson
On SundanceTV, Wednesday at 10 p.m.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.