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Tuesday 7 May 2013

The Story of Luke (2012)

Director: Alonso Mayo
Stars: Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes and Kristin Bauer
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
As the Special Jury Prize at the Phoenix Film Festival was being awarded to Lou Taylor Pucci, for his leading role in The Story of Luke, he was also starring in the number one movie in America, The Evil Dead. Nailing both indie and mainstream cinema at the same time is a pretty good sign that you've arrived, even if it took a decade of hard work. It has to be said though that this film is rather well titled: not only is it the well defined story of a character named Luke, it's not a heck of a lot else. There are capable actors backing up Pucci, but the stories of their characters are either completely ignored or ruthlessly severed just as we get interested. The Story of Luke is, well, it's the story of Luke and Luke is the sort of special character, a high functioning young autistic man, who either fails horribly or wins awards. Pucci is excellent enough for it to be the latter, though I doubt that the film will last in people's minds like some of its more Oscar-worthy equivalents.

We join Luke at a rather troubled time in his life. To be fair, his entire life has been troubled; his mother left when he was four because she couldn't deal with a special needs child and he has no idea who his dad is. He's been living with his grandparents ever since, but now Grandma Maggie, the most important person in his life, has died and his life is about to change completely. What's notable immediately is that as much as Luke is autistic and isolated from reality, he's also higher functioning than Grandpa Jonas, who's inappropriate and in dire need of care. The pair stay with Luke's Uncle Paul and Jonas wears out his welcome immediately: he grabs Aunt Cindy's ass and offers her a twenty, pees himself in her car and craps himself in a restroom because he forgot to pull down his trousers first. He also insults everyone deliberately; Luke only does it because he's honest and doesn't have the social skills needed to know when to keep quiet.

And so off goes Grandpa Jonas, his story running only a little longer than Grandma Maggie's and she died before the movie began. That's an unfortunate trend in this film; it's so strongly about Luke that we pay attention to anyone else at our own risk. Sure, it's his story and he's set up to be a fascinating character from moment one, walking to Maggie's funeral with a pair of mismatched shoes and a suitcase, only to stand up and scream during the service, but he's promptly shifted into a new world and tasked with finding his own way. Paul and Cindy are a dysfunctional couple with a pair of dysfunctional kids, Brad and Megan, so routinely dysfunctional that we expect the cliché: that all they each need to shake them out of their respective problems is the presence in their lives of someone special like Luke. It's the expected thing because that's what all the other films about special people do and, at least for a while, it's what this one does too.
First up is Aunt Cindy, who's scarily up tight. OK, Grandpa would have got on anyone's nerves but she gets on everyone else's nerves, to the degree that her manicurist fires her as a customer. It has to be said that Kristin Bauer does psycho bitchy better than perhaps anyone, so I don't have a single problem with her performance, but it apparently takes a single one sided conversation with Luke to turn her around. I don't buy that. It takes a similar amount of inaction or at least mild action on Luke's part for him to start to change every other member of the family too. You'd think they'd package him up in a bottle and sell him at the pharmacy. I wonder if all these scenes were writer/director Alonso Mayo's way of getting all the clichés out of the way so that Luke could move forward to experience an original story of his own. If so, it worked but it marginalised most of the stars in the process. Kristin Bauer and Cary Elwes? Forget 'em. This is the story of Luke.

Trying to find a life for himself outside this family while rigidly obeying all of Aunt Cindy's rules is where Luke's story is going and this is a lot more successful. As unintentionally annoying as Luke can be, Pucci succeeds in making him rather endearing. A great deal of it has to be the way he channels a young and nerdy Johnny Depp physically but Jim Parsons vocally. Partly it's his socially awkward honesty, which works like an inner voice that's usually kept silent. Certainly this is one key way that he shakes up the family he comes to live with, exposing that they're all hiding from reality and suggesting that all it takes to set them back on the road to recovery is to confront them with it. Partly it's his delightfully odd balance between constant unsurety and strong will. He simmers with a subdued panic but has the guts to confront his fears, routines and OCD, turning assumptions of how things have to change into absolutes, however absurd they happen to be.

One great example is Maria. She's a receptionist at the job agency he visits to look for work, the only way he'll be able to move into a place of his own. Prompted by his grandpa's inappropriate comments, he asks her out. She turns him down, but he equates that rejection with his lack of work so strongly that getting a job in his mind equates to her saying yes. It clearly isn't going to happen, but his delusion is so believable and so recognisable from reality that we find ourselves rooting for him nonetheless. However, we're soon about to be caught up in something else, the transition of the picture from comedic drama to dramatic comedy, with the arrival of Seth Green who says things like, 'Humanity is evil!' and, 'To the dungeon, halfwit!' He's Zack, the boss from Hell in an inappropriate way that's shocking to Luke, who's stuck interning for him, and hilarious to us. And it's not politically incorrect because Zack's obviously special too.
The Story of Luke is as its best when it's telling the story of Luke. The movie was released during National Autism Awareness month, appropriate because it gifts us with a believably autistic lead who is nonetheless the most endearing character in the film. He's special to us without that term having to hold a double meaning. I found the ways in which Mayo wrote the character and Pucci played him far more human and engaging than anything I saw in Rain Man, which won a brace of Academy Awards. Perhaps it's because Rain Man was never about Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant, at all; it was always about his shallow brother, Charlie and how Raymond changed him. By comparison, The Story of Luke is all about the autistic Luke, who isn't a savant but whose autism is high functioning enough to allow him to interact with the world, albeit in a different way to the rest of us. It's the various Charlies in his life who we can happily ignore.

The only other character who really gets a fully painted story arc is Zack, who calls normal people NTs or 'neurological typicals' and studies their mating rituals. Seth Green is hilarious as Zack, who is so outrageous that he highlights how easily acceptable Luke's social faux pas are. The catch is that he's such a comedy character that it's hard to take his dramatic side seriously. Pucci is able to walk that fine line, but Green can't manage it. Everyone else is set up, used as a prop for Luke to build off and then callously discarded. While I was happy for this to extend past the expected, I also wanted to know more about the other characters in his life. Kristin Bauer is wasted as Cindy, even with a couple of strong scenes early on; Cary Elwes doesn't even get that much as Paul. The kids are shown to us in scenes that make us want to discover why they're like how they are, but none of that discovery ever shows up.

Really, this entire family is relegated to being a set of walking props, just as the characters who show up later in the story walk into Luke's life, establish something important and then disappear again. A few of them are massively important, but only in how they affect Luke. They're all either unimportant on their own merits or Mayo refuses to allow them to show why they have their own importance too. Of course, their one dimensionality is only highlighted by the superbly nuanced three dimensions that Luke is given. Throughout, the film felt like an animation of a beautiful and colourful painted character walking around in a black and white world. I could go out on a limb and wonder if that's the point, that Mayo is turning the tables and showing us how a withdrawn autistic character could see himself as black and white in a world of colour, or how we erroneously see that through prejudice, but I don't think so. I think this is just emphatically the story of Luke.

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