Ezra (2024)

Robert De Niro, Bobby Cannavale and William A. Fitzgerald in a scene from “Ezra.”

Uneven ‘Ezra’ brings autism to the mainstream

It’s not easy being “different,” especially when you’re on the autism spectrum. I know because I’m among the roughly 5 percent of the population considered neurodivergent. For the uninitiated, this means I’m socially awkward, low on empathy, experience sensory hypersensitivity, interpret words literally, resist eye contact and get flustered easily. And true to the translation of the Greek word autism, I tend to reside in my own world.

I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 65, but what a revelation. Suddenly, everything made sense: the bullying, the academic struggles, the recalcitrant behavior, being misunderstood and frequently labeled aloof by neurotypicals. The worst is pretending to be “ordinary,” to conform to a society that demands normality at the risk of being ostracized. You must adapt to “them,” not they to you.

This pressure is very much on display in “Ezra,” the much-too-rare flick that dares portray ASD in a positive light while also chastising neurotypicals who feel the need to transform us. As I like to say, asking someone with ASD to assimilate is like asking a gay man to be straight. It ain’t gonna happen. This is the lesson that a host of name stars – Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Rose Byrne, Rainn Wilson and Vera Farmiga – seek to impart in the form of a very strange movie about a dad kidnapping his 11-year-old autistic son and whisking him off on a cross-country adventure.

Holy AMBER Alert! Directed by Tony Goldwyn and written by Tony Spiridakis, the father of an autistic child, the story is as wrongheaded as it gets. Why make it a road picture involving a criminal act? If the film aims to better serve the ASD community, why not focus on the parents? In this case, Cannavale and Byrne as Max and Jenna Bernal, a couple in the midst of a divorce and disputing how best to raise their son, Ezra (the amazing newcomer William A. Fitzgerald), to be “normal.” Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for us to see how they discover Ezra is not a freak but a gift, a boy with a huge personality and an even bigger capacity to love in his own way?

The story begins on that path, with Ezra’s parents fraught over being summoned yet again to the principal’s office to address their son’s disruptive classroom behavior. It’s suggested that Ezra be placed in an alternative learning program with kids “like him.”

As you’d expect, Mom and Dad take offense, but what they are is ashamed. They’re merely unable to acknowledge it. Ezra being expelled is a judgment of them and their fitness as parents. This is a common reaction, I would imagine, although I can’t know for sure because when I was a kid – frequently sent to the principal’s office – little was known about autism. You were simply labeled a “difficult” child.

So, why not center the movie on the covert selfishness of the parents and let us observe how they learn to overcome it and begin to cherish the uniqueness of their child? Perhaps Spiridakis found such introspection too troubling. But for whatever reason, his decision to allow his script to veer into the direction of an on-the-road odyssey is perplexing. For one thing, it completely removes Jenna from the equation. And for another, the events that ensue are utterly implausible. A man absconding with his prepubescent son, traveling by car from New Jersey to Los Angeles without being apprehended? Get real.

It’s also debatable whether the movie is even about Ezra. It seems to be more about Max, a failed comedy writer attempting to establish a career as a stand-up comedian employing a routine built around parenting an autistic child. Like his equally self-destructive dad, Stan (De Niro), with whom he now resides, Max is all about Max. He complains about being abandoned by his mother and forced to grow up in Nebraska with a man as irresponsible as Stan for a father.

As a result, he projects a lot onto Ezra, who minces no words, telling his old man that he simply had a shitty mother; move on. He’s right, but if Max took the kid’s advice, Cannavale wouldn’t fulfill his obligation to spend much of the movie wallowing in self-pity. He’s masterful, but his effort is wasted on blah and predictable plot twists. It’s the same for Byrne and De Niro, whose characters join forces to pursue Max and the boy. Why? It makes no sense.

The final destination, in a shameless bit of promotion, is “The Jimmy Kimmel Show,” where Max has been booked as a guest by his agent, Grace (Goldberg). It’s the big break he’s been dreaming of. So, why jeopardize it by kidnapping his son? Again, perplexing. Even stranger, Max isn’t funny! He’s actually a buzzkill.

And so is the entire road trip. Not only is it a worn-out, overused plot device, but it offers nothing in the way of fun or discovery beyond the come-to-Jesus moment when Max realizes he must stop attempting to change Ezra and start evaluating himself. I love the message. As I said, there’s nothing more demeaning to someone with ASD than being asked to “change.” Not only is it impossible, it’s degrading, a suggestion that you are somehow defective.

That part of the movie is excellent, as is Fitzgerald, the winner of a nationwide search for an autistic child with acting chops. And, boy, did Goldwyn and company hit the jackpot. The kid is spot-on, right down to the mannerisms that seem so familiar to me: the aversion to eye contact, being physically touched, etc. He even grabs his face as I do when extremely frustrated. The kid deserves an Oscar. But I doubt the neurotypical world will appreciate the nuances as fully as the ASD community.

Fitzgerald’s superior work is also deserving of a better movie. Don’t get me wrong, “Ezra” is noble, well-meaning and highly entertaining in spots. But as a cohesive and coherent film, it’s severely lacking, its much-needed advocacy overshadowed by schmaltz and cliches. It also pretty much sidesteps the reality that autism is inheritable. It’s obvious through their actions that Max and Stan are afflicted, too. But other than a few mentions of the possibility, the subject is largely squelched.

It may have seemed unimportant to the filmmakers, but to people like me passing on ASD DNA is central to understanding ourselves and how we relate to the parent who is the carrier. For me, like Ezra, it was my dad. He and I never got along. Perhaps had we known we were both on the spectrum we might have found that special bond Ezra and Max forge.

The movie does underscore how little is known about ASD, a trait that wasn’t even a “thing” until the 1970s. That means there’s an entire generation out there that knows little about it, and in turn, even less about the folks who have it. And even though “Ezra” is somewhat of a disappointment, hopefully, the film will increase social awareness and decrease some of the stigma. That’s all a “freak” like me can ask.

Movie review


Rated: R for drug use, some sexual references, language

Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, William A. Fitzgerald, Robert De Niro, Rainn Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn and Vera Farmiga

Director: Tony Goldwyn

Writer: Tony Spiridakis

Runtime: 100 minutes

Where: In theaters May 31

Grade: B-

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