Tumble, Push, Turn
Before Rain Man, I imagine the vast majority of people had no idea what autism or neurodivergence was. Of course there were families who did, and people who did, yet the cultural conversation hadn’t swung in their direction yet. When Rain Man was released in 1988, however, it hit like a bomb.
The fact that Rain Man won Dustin Hoffman an Oscar is perhaps one of the less important parts of its legacy. More importantly, it caused people to simultaneously understand and misunderstand autism on a wide scale. Even now, a misconception exists that a neurodivergent person also has savant syndrome, the rare condition in which someone excels at a particular skill.
That’s the not-great news. The better news is that Rain Man was the opening conversational salvo about people who live with autism. You probably remember that back in the day, neurodivergent characters in movies tended to be portrayed as one-dimensional plot devices.* Movies are a lot of things, and one of the most important is that they’re a conversation we have about culture. As time goes on and as representation becomes normalized, the cinematic conversation changes for the better.
Now, more and more, neurodivergence is portrayed as an aspect of who people are as opposed to the aspect. A movie like Flip Turn, the new independent sports drama, reminds us of that nuance in a positive way.
Garrett (Evan Brinkman) idolizes his deceased grandfather. Every day at precisely the same time, he slides a videotape into a VCR** and presses play. Every day he watches his underdog grandfather swim in the Olympics and win. If you were to ask Garrett, he could tell you exactly how many times he’s seen that moment of triumph, and the moment never loses its luster.
That routine briefly lifts Garrett out of the routine of his life. He’s a teenager in a (I think?***) relatively small Texas town, a place where the fact of his neurodivergence continues to raise more than a few eyebrows. That’s one reason why his mother Connie (Holly Day) is so protective. And yet, that’s another reason why his Grandma (Sheree J. Wilson) is so determined to prove he can do anything he puts his mind to.
Their family lived their lives as swimmers. It’s only natural for Grandma to pass on their lineage to Garrett and teach him how to swim. While the process takes time, Garrett gradually gets the hang of swimming. And then, it’s as if a switch is thrown, and he’s swimming fast. Fast enough that an idea begins to take shape.
Garrett’s sister Summer (Rachel Cameron) is on the high school swim team. She’s good, but the team flounders. Mitch (Donny Boaz) is the swim team coach who needs a miracle, and he knows if the team can’t cruise to glory, its funding will be yanked. His miracle might be Garrett, and Summer might not be entirely thrilled about that.
Here’s the thing about being a movie critic – I have to be critical. Part of my job is to get into what worked and didn’t work for me, to be honest about how a given film made me feel. That, in short, makes me a bit of a buzzkill sometimes. Having said that, I think we can agree that Flip Turn is a warm-hearted and genuinely inspirational film. The world needs movies that a) make people feel good, b) practice inclusivity, and c) do so in a way that portrays the characters as three-dimensional and not as mere symbols. Flip Turn does all of that handily.
Having said that, some serious flaws still exist in the film. The direction by Alin Bijan is frustratingly inconsistent. There are moments of real energy and momentum, such as the majority of the swim meet sequences. There are moments of enormous heart with Garrett and his family. Unfortunately, those moments are undercut by scenes that run too long. This drains the energy from the scene when it should be boosting either excitement or drama. There’s also a problem with a nearly omnipresent soundtrack. The music bludgeons the audience, and it’s almost as if the film is screaming, “THIS SCENE IS INSPIRATIONAL! AREN’T YOU INSPIRED?” It almost feels like Bijan didn’t trust the audience to get the nuances of the film, or trust his own directing abilities.
Luckily, Bijan had a solid screenplay by Larry Postel and Carlos Venegas to rely on. The script is well structured, with setups that are efficiently paid off and dialogue that’s natural. For the most part, the characterization is thoughtful and willing to be complicated. Garrett isn’t a shining beacon of heroism. Summer isn’t an endlessly supportive sister. Mitch isn’t the avatar of positivity. Most of these folks are flawed human beings who are genuinely trying to do their best, and I like that. The one glaring flaw with the characterization is Nathaniel Ashton’s Randy. He’s the star of a competing swim team, and if you were expecting a cartoonishly evil bully, that’s literally all the character of Randy is. Are there cartoonishly evil bullies in the world? Of course, but it’s disappointing to have so many relatively nuanced characters here, and not apply the same level of care to this one.
Flip Turn isn’t designed to be the kind of movie that features overly verbose monologues or wacky characters. Since it’s a movie about regular people, the cast understands the assignment and proceeds accordingly. I like that we seem to be getting beyond the old days where an actor playing a neurodivergent character is nothing more than a handful of insulting mannerisms. As Garrett, Evan Brinkman plays the role with subtlety and intelligence. Aided by the screenplay, he’s careful to show Garrett as someone with interests and agency.
We should take a moment and talk about the sweetly romantic subplot between Holly Day’s Connie and Donny Boaz’s Mitch. If you’ve ever seen a movie before, it will come as zero surprise to you that these two get together. However, the teamwork between Day and Boaz is so strong that they never feel like a couple of actors going through the motions. It feels like two good people who have ignored how lonely they are for a long time. They’re both a little surprised to find themselves entering into a relationship, and Boaz and Day sell the growing warmth without having to make a speech to the audience. That degree of skill and professionalism proves that an obvious subplot can sometimes be a good thing.
Not too long from now, a neurodivergent character will be hilarious in a comedy, or beat seventeen kinds of ass in an action movie, or move audiences in a romance. The condition won’t define the character, just like the eventuality of mainstream trans representation in movies. While Flip Turn has its flaws, it’s a film made with a sunny disposition and the best of intentions. In the end, that’s what really matters.
*I’m looking at you, The Predator. And you, Mercury Rising. And you, The Accountant. But should all of those movies be canceled, cast into the great cinematic darkness? Hell, no. I, for one, adore The Accountant. But we should realize that people got things wrong in the past, and are getting things wrong now. Over time, we get better at getting it right.
**The one moment that broke suspension of disbelief for me is the idea of a still-functional VCR.
***The opening of the film tells us that Flip Turn is based on a true story. Weirdly, when I do a bit of Googling, I couldn’t easily find information about the real events.