With diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder soaring, it’s not surprising to see a batch of new documentaries on the subject — some produced in Vermont. Dramas with autistic protagonists are more rare. Rain Man won Dustin Hoffman an Oscar, but that movie may have encouraged some misconceptions — for instance, that everyone with autism has miraculous savant abilities. Plus, as Noel Murray pointed out in a recent essay  on The Onion A.V. Club blog, most of these films approach autism from the outside, focusing on the reactions and conflicts of “neurotypical” folks.
The Canadian indie Snow Cake, starting at the Palace 9 on Friday, tries to go deeper and sometimes succeeds. It’s about the offbeat friendship that develops between a high-functioning autistic woman in a desolate Ontario town (Sigourney Weaver) and a laconic Englishman who’s just been released from prison (Alan Rickman).
An unlikely series of events lands Rickman’s character, Alex Hughes, on Weaver’s doorstep. Headed for Winnipeg, he gives a lift to a young woman named Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), who has the bowl haircut of a late-’70s sitcom star and comes off as extroverted to the point of mania. She pries into Alex’s business, coaxing him to tell her why he did time — but before he can get further than “I killed a man,” tragedy strikes in the form of an errant semi.
The accident kills Vivienne and spares Alex. Though the police encourage him not to visit the girl’s mother, Linda, he does, perhaps seeking a sense of closure, and finds instead a woman who isn’t grieving in any recognizable way. She greets him with the singsong announcement, “I don’t do social,” as if “social” were on a par with toe-sucking or speaking in tongues. Linda doesn’t do flexible, either. She’s phobic about germs and disorder, and invites Alex to stay only after he promises to help her with a terrifying task Vivienne used to perform: taking out the garbage.
As every A-list actor probably knows, playing a person with some sort of mental or neurological anomaly is a ticket to major acclaim if you do it right, and to ridicule if you don’t. (Rosie O’Donnell’s embarrassing turn as a developmentally disabled woman in Riding the Bus With My Sister comes to mind.) Like many actors, Weaver has trouble portraying social withdrawal. Her Linda is a highly verbal, even self-dramatizing autist, whether she’s yelling, “You’re stupid!” at a neighbor or rambling about the orgasmic pleasure of eating snow. Early on, she plays the quirks so broad that it’s easy to laugh at the character. But screenwriter Angela Pell and director Marc Evans find ways of bringing us inside Linda’s mind. In a scene where she introduces Alex to her unorthodox version of Scrabble, Weaver quiets down and delivers a surprisingly beautiful monologue. From then on, it’s hard not to believe in her — and in their rapport.
Nobody projects quiet menace quite like Rickman in his many villain roles, but here he does a fine job of projecting — well, mainly just quiet. He’s so convincing as a man carrying baggage that he overcomes the weaknesses of the screenplay, which forgoes real character development in favor of contrivances that link Alex’s present to his past. Carrie-Anne Moss feels extraneous as the woman who helps revive him with sexual healing, no strings attached. (How many real small towns have a gorgeous Good Samaritan like this?)
The core of Snow Cake is the less conventional relationship between Alex and Linda — and between Linda and Vivienne. One of the small triumphs of the movie is that it makes us miss a minor character: Once we meet Linda, we understand her daughter’s strange mixture of charm and abrasiveness, and see how the two women complemented each other.
Well-meaning observers sometimes ask whether autistic people can feel or express love. The movie’s answer is clearly yes — if we can get our minds around the fact that love speaks more than one language.