The Reason I Jump stumbles a bit when it attempts to overexplain but is an otherwise illuminating and beautiful portrait of an underrepresented population.
Based on the book by Naoki Higashida, Jerry Rothwell’s documentary The Reason I Jump seeks to examine life from the point of view of a series of non-verbal teenagers on the autism spectrum. As a non-verbal adolescent who is himself on the autism spectrum, Higashida’s work sought to give neurotypical people a glimpse at the world as seen by the neurodivergent. It’s a tall order to translate such material to film, but Rothwell attempts to visually translate Higashida’s book so that viewers can experience an approximation of autism firsthand. The results, however, are somewhat at odds with each other.
By turns ecstatic and mundane, The Reason I Jump follows a group of non-verbal teens who, rather than seeking to integrate seamlessly into the world around them, find ways to embrace life and exist freely in a society that often doesn’t understand their unique perspective. Rothwell juxtaposes these scenes, along with interviews with their neurotypical parents, with narrative passages from Higadisha’s book. The film is most successful when it immerses the audience in Higadisha’s POV, and while he pointedly refuses to speak broadly to the experience of all people on the autism spectrum, the film finds a way of articulating his vision so that such particular fixations and feelings come into focus, often converging with the lived experiences of the film’s subjects. There’s something almost impressionistic — perhaps even Malickian — about Rothwell’s direction, and he does well not to approach his subjects as exoticized objects of sympathy, but rather as the fully-formed human beings they are, boasting rich internal lives that simply cannot be fully understood by the neurotypical. Where the film loses energy, then, is in its attempts to too intentionally seek that understanding, as when Rothwell uses interviews with the parents of these non-verbal teenagers in order to try to make sense of their children’s interior worlds. In other words, the film operates best when it is looking from the inside out rather than the outside in, and Higashida’s prose offers a fascinating and often lovely glimpse into a different way of experiencing the world.
Clearly, Rothwell’s film is one made with neurotypical audiences in mind, and its outsider’s perspective occasionally blunts its impact, but the director also guides the material with sensitivity and grace, eschewing voyeurism for curiosity and sympathy for empathy. Through the lens of Higashida’s experience, The Reason I Jump manages to explicate otherwise foreign concepts like sensory overload in terms easily digestible for audiences, but where it really excels is in finding a kind of joy in the infinite possibilities of life beyond the familiar understanding of neurotypical living. The film captures such beauty in the minutiae of visual and sensory detail that, if only for a few moments, viewers are invited to experience the world around them in a whole new way. And while Rothwell approaches this all as a kind of awesome cosmic mystery, Higashida’s words keep the film grounded in the realm of human experience, delivering a unique perspective of the world through the eyes of an oft-misunderstood population who is so often the subject of pity from well-meaning individuals who don’t quite understand what they’re missing. The Reason I Jump’s impact is two-fold: it seeks to clear up any neurotypical misconceptions about autism, while at the same time — and perhaps even more importantly — offering a rare opportunity to truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.