The United States of Leland

* (Has redeemming facet)

Written and directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge

With Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Ann Magnuson, Jena Malone, and Kevin Spacey.

A few years back some disability-rights activists were offended by the movie There’s Something About Mary. I wholeheartedly disagreed. Sure, the Farrelly brothers threw in scenes that showed people with disabilities as clumsy and bossy, but it was all funny and close to the truth. I would have been more offended had the Farrelly brothers left us out. They satirize everything and everyone else. Why not us? (I use a motorized wheelchair.) Do they think we’re too fragile to take it?

So I wasn’t sure what to think about the campaign to organize a boycott of The United States of Leland launched last year by Ellen Sweeney, a New Jersey mother of a seven-year-old son with autism. Reviews of the film in the mainstream press have been mixed: Roger Ebert called it “a moral muddle” but lauded some of the performances; Jan Stuart, writing in Newsday, hailed it as “a bracing gust of fresh air amid a season thick with high-volume, low-think entertainment.” But activists have been organizing protests nationwide. Last weekend’s opening at the Esquire was leafleted by members of the Forest Park-based disability rights group Not Dead Yet.

Sweeney hasn’t seen the movie, and isn’t planning to–she doesn’t think she could take it. She’s based her objections on the synopsis provided by Paramount Pictures, which describes the main character, Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), as a “sensitive teenager” who “kills an autistic child out of sympathy (sort of like an emotional euthanasia).”

“My son was low functioning when he was first diagnosed,” says Sweeney. “He had self-injuring behavior and was very aggressive. He was nonverbal. He’s very verbal now. He’s very affectionate now. He used to hit me if I tried to touch him. He functions a grade level above the grade he’s in.”

She was also alarmed by an open letter from writer and director Matthew Ryan Hoge that she says used to be on the movie’s Web site. It’s now posted on the site for her boycott, Hoge wrote of Leland, “His fatal flaw is that he feels too much. The audience will, at first, be intrigued by Leland to then [sic] sympathizing with him; and, hopefully, by the end of the film, they will care for him deeply.”

“My mouth dropped open when I read this,” says Sweeney.

That does sound ominous when you consider how much of that sort of sympathizing goes on in the real world. Dick Sobsey is the director of the J.P. Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He’s collected news accounts of 2,370 homicides or attempted homicides of people with developmental disabilities, and he’s found 113 accounts of homicides of people with autism since 1997. They were beaten, bludgeoned, burned, shot, asphyxiated, poisoned, and, like the boy Leland kills, stabbed. More than 70 percent of the accused murderers were family members or caregivers.

Defense attorneys and the accused inevitably play the pity card, says Sobsey. They depict the victim’s existence as nothing but a tragic burden and the accused as simply overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. This spin often results in tremendous community and media pressure on judges and prosecutors to go easy on the accused, and quite often translates into lighter sentences or acquittal. Of the 53 reported homicides of people with autism in the U.S. and Canada in his study, just 26 resulted in charges and 14 brought convictions. Only ten of the convicted killers were sentenced to jail; the average time served was 16 months. One person received the death penalty.

This is why lots of disabled folks and their families and friends get so emotional about the dehumanization of pity. It’s a cheap device that’s been used to soft-pedal a lot of mistreatment. But how much does The United States of Leland play into this?

In the film, Leland is sent to juvenile detention after he stabs Ryan (Michael Welch), the autistic brother of his girlfriend (Jena Malone), in a public park. From there the plot focuses on the soul-searching the characters, including Leland, undertake to figure out how this soft-spoken, gentle teen could do such a thing.

Ryan is certainly a caricature. He fidgets, stares into oblivion, cries, and repeats the phrase, “Sing a song.” His parents seem to derive no joy or anything positive from his existence. After his death his mother (Ann Magnuson) only says of him, “He was barely there.”

But the other characters in Leland are paper-thin as well. Leland’s estranged father (Kevin Spacey) is a bitter, nihilistic novelist. Leland’s teacher in prison (Don Cheadle, in a role Hoge says is based on his own experience) is a softhearted liberal inexplicably fascinated by this shrugging, inarticulate kid. Leland is a brooding teen beaten down by the emptiness of a life of privilege. Leland’s girlfriend is a drug addict for no apparent reason.

Hoge provides no original insight into incarceration, drug abuse, or the pointless infidelity that abounds, so you shouldn’t expect to learn anything about autism either. What you get instead is a grating melodrama aimed squarely at the Dawson’s Creek demographic.

There are plenty of good artistic reasons to not go see Leland, and some good political ones emerge at the very end of the film. Leland says in a voice-over that he now realizes he did what he did because there was so much sadness all around. And nowhere was this sadness more apparent than in the face of autistic Ryan. He just wanted all the sadness to stop. In the final scene, a flashback, Leland hugs and consoles the flustered Ryan and tells him not to worry, that everything will be all right. This is right before he kills him.

Ellen Sweeney worries about copycats. “It happens with TV shows and music, why couldn’t it happen with a movie? You have Gosling and these teen idols and a younger crowd going to see this movie.”

I think the more clear and present danger is that prolonged exposure to Leland could greatly increase one’s susceptibility to the pity defense. I wonder if the idea of a victim with autism was appealing to Hoge because it turned what would otherwise be clear-cut brutality into something grayer and subject to debate. Audience members who hop on that ride may well be more inclined to do the same the next time the opportunity arises in real life.

Hoge doesn’t go so far as to say Leland did a good thing by murdering Ryan. That’s not his agenda. But he spends an awful lot of time trying to get us to understand Leland and almost none trying to get us to understand his victim.