Rational parenting of an autistic child is the topic of director John Asher’s Po, which is currently seeking a distribution deal. The movie, starring Julian Feder as the autistic boy known as Po, Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty) as his widower father, and Kaitlin Doubleday (Rhonda on Fox’s Empire) as a teacher for autistic kids, gets better and stronger in the second half and it’s made more convincing and complete by the musical score. Colin Goldman wrote the script based on his story with Steve C. Roberts.
Po’s tale hinges on the lessons of widowed parenting. The autism comes into the picture prominently from the start, with young Po struggling at school, where he’s being both mainstreamed and bullied, not to mention overlooked by school officials. Though his Prius-driving, engineer father overcompensates, the mystery of Po is not just what’s driving the boy into his own world but what’s driving his dad’s fear and anxiety.
With a demanding work project and his job on the line, government child welfare on his back, a wife lost to cancer (which isn’t immediately clear), a kid that colors in mustard on the walls and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” as a sensory immersion, Po piles a lot on Dad’s plate. This is undoubtedly part of Po‘s point. Some of it drags, doesn’t add up—a ponytailed boss and a British accented character are badly cast—and takes too long or needs editing. But when Po faces the prospect of danger or life in a home for “special needs” kids, his plight and his father’s dilemma come into sharp focus.
The demands of an autistic child are also on full display, thanks to a fine performance by Feder, who is not autistic. Like The Boy Who Could Fly, Silent Fall, Radio Flyer and other remote boy-themed movies, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Po gets into the child’s world and examines reality partly from his distorted or skewed perspective. By the time Doubleday’s blonde autism instructor shows up, it is clear that the father-son bond is taking a beating and the audience wants to know why. Po discovers a friend at school. Meanwhile, his dad discovers the prospect of a hybrid airplane. They spend quality time together with flight as a theme, building and flying model airplanes while the father worries about losing his job and his employer-provided health plan.
At a certain point, Po, who draws pictures of rocket ships, activates his vivid imagination, including a visit by an adult stranger and Po’s solo dance to Generation X with Billy Idol’s New Wave anthem “Dancing With Myself”.
It’s about joy, confidence and loving yourself, Po tells the stranger as he happily hops around to the song, so it’s clear that the son’s intelligence is not in dispute. But his connection to reality is slipping as his dad struggles to keep pace with work, school and parenting an autistic kid. This while he’s being pounded or taunted at school, missing his dead mother and telling his father not to be afraid.
The plot thickens around the notion of departure and, more compelling in the second half, Po keeps the audience guessing with a surprise, suspense and a gentle lesson in doing what’s best for the child, which might not be exactly what you think. Gorham, Feder and Doubleday are fine and the movie unfolds briskly in the second half, aided and masterfully scored by Burt Bacharach, including a new song he wrote which was recorded for the film by Sheryl Crow, “Dancing With Your Shadow”. The legendary songwriter’s score, sparingly rendered with perfection, casts a glow over Po.
The Laemmle Music Hall theater screening included an interview with director John Asher and composer Burt Bacharach (“Close to You,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Say A Little Prayer”) the great composer, songwriter, record producer, pianist and singer.
Discussing how he and Po‘s song lyricist Billy Mann (“Dancing With Your Shadow”) have an existing connection to autism, director Asher told the tale of his serendipitous commercial airline flight meeting with Bacharach, whom Asher said he didn’t recognize, let alone know about Bacharach’s own tragic link to autistic parenting. His daughter with his former wife Angie Dickinson, Nikki, had Asperger’s, he said, and had been so traumatized by the treatments and ordeal that she eventually committed suicide as an adult. When presented with the opportunity, Bacharach, who said he’d first watched Po without music in a hotel in New Zealand, said he knew that “I could score this with love.”
John Asher, who told the admiring screening audience that he had learned from Bacharach the meaning of musical terms such as resolve and dissonance, explained that Bacharach had the film for two months.
Bacharach told the audience that he is “very proud” of his work for Po and that he seeks to “raise awareness” about autism, which he said he wants to eradicate. He added that he was careful and meticulous with the score, telling Asher that one scene needed no music. When I asked if there’s a moment in Po that he regards as a perfect alignment of movie and music, Bacharach said that’s difficult to say. Later, he cited What’s New Pussycat (1965) as an example of such an alignment because he said he’d found the Peter O’Toole character to be sort of “weird and jagged” which, in turn, inspired that sense in the title song he composed for Tom Jones.
The young child actor who plays Po in the film, Julian Feder, also appeared and, when I asked about his preparation for the role, said he watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Rain Man “many times”. But it was Grammy and Oscar-winning Burt Bacharach, whose legacy of popular hits and timeless compositions, many with lyricist and frequent collaborator Hal David, who made the screening memorable. John Asher told everyone that he sought to make a “positive and uplifting” film about parenting an autistic child. With Po, and with help from the parent of an autistic child before such a term was known and more deeply understood, Burt Bacharach, who scores the picture with unmistakable tenderness, I think he succeeds.