For those unfamiliar with autism – its severity and its effects on individuals and families – Gerardine Wurzberg’s documentary “Wretches & Jabberers” will be an eye-opener. Wurzberg profiles two autistic men, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette. Accompanied by their caregivers Harvey Lavoy and Pascal Cheng, Tracy and Larry travel the world, meeting with others afflicted with autism and provide them with moral support. Having been advocates for autism awareness for decades, they address conferences and classrooms in Sri Lanka, Tokyo and Helsinki on the topic on what it’s like to live with autism and to overturn misperceptions that those with autism are of limited potential and intelligence.
It’s a meaningful, worthwhile message to say that those with autism have too long been confined by cultural ignorance and that they have as much potential to contribute to society as anyone else. But Wurzberg lays it on a bit thick; once its established, her message begins to sound like a broken record, like the opening sentence to a lengthy essay that keeps getting repeated at the beginning of each new paragraph. Moreover, the decision to saturate the film with copious amounts of ad hoc pop tunes (largely of the emo variety) feels heavy-handed and at times ill advised, as when the scene of an excited autistic youngster prompts “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the soundtrack. The music adds a wistful mood generally, but it’s overused and unnecessary particularly because the film finds itself through the people inhabiting it.
By observing Tracy, Larry, Pascal and Harvey, we find genuine examples of dedication, conviction and passion. Because of severe speech defects, Tracy and Larry must type out the words they wish to communicate on writing devices – a grueling process to encapsulate thoughts and feelings letter by letter on a keypad. We see their struggle, and it’s heart-rending to watch them have emotional breakdowns out of sheer frustration. Yet, it’s through these words typed on screens that “Wretches & Jabberers” finds a kind of poetry underlining everything.
We experience the novelty of Larry and Tracy’s far-flung travels through their eyes. As strange as the food and customs of Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland may seem to them, it’s ultimately the bonds they forge with like-minded advocates and with fellow autistics that makes them (and their newfound friends and the rest of us, for that matter) feel that the world has room to include all of us.
“Wretches & Jabberers,” ultimately, charts the journey of two individuals finding purpose to their existence and cultivating the patience needed to overcome their disabilities. Wurzberg ably captures the pain and sadness inherent in Larry and Tracy’s struggles – Tracy, for instance, does not have a permanent home – but both men project humor and thoughtfulness despite everything. Just as inspiring is to watch the intense solidarity and companionship shown by Harvey and Pascal throughout, helping Larry and Tracy overcome their frustrations, treating them with the dignity they deserve. It’s by engaging with all these extraordinary people that the film’s beauty reveals itself.
Directed by: Gerardine Wurzberg
Cast: Larry Bissonnette, Tracy Thresher