Film Review: A Boy Called Po

'A Boy Called Po' pours on the schmaltz and a Burt Bacharach score to sketch an oddly affecting portrait of autism.
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Short on visual style, and as long on cheesy sentiment as a Lifetime movie marathon, A Boy Called Po still accomplishes its clear intent to convincingly portray a parent struggling to raise a child with autism. The indie drama, directed by John Asher (Somebody Marry Me), is less persuasive in its fantastical attempts to peer inside the inscrutable mind of that autistic child, a sixth-grader named Patrick Wilson (Julian Feder), called Po by those closest to him. But nonetheless, the film succeeds in depicting the dangerously widening schism between Po’s inner world and the real world he shares with his overwhelmed single dad, David (Christopher Gorham).

An aeronautics engineer hustling to keep his job, David can barely get over the recent death of his wife, Po’s mother, Beth (Jud Tylor), let alone conceive of how he’ll raise their special-needs son without her. Po, traumatized by his mother’s absence, increasingly suffers from acute developmental issues that challenge him, his dad, and his school administrators, who believe the boy’s regressing, not recovering.

Indeed, Po does appear to be disappearing gradually into the recesses of his mind, or “drifting,” as his declining situation is described by a concerned social worker, Bill (Brian George). Bill flags the Wilsons for state monitoring after an incident that lands Po in the hospital, and he tries to convince David that an institutional solution might be what’s best for Po.

However, David insists on taking care of Po himself, despite evidence he’s failing to manage Po’s mental health and physical wellbeing, along with his own demanding bosses and financial woes. Even with a hand from a well-meaning therapist, Amy (Kaitlin Doubleday), David and Po’s situation grows ever more tenuous, demonstrating that it might be wisest for him to entrust his son to the full-time care and supervision of a special facility.

At its most effective, A Boy Called Po poignantly illustrates the gut-churning difficulty a parent might face deciding whether to turn their child over to a state-run home. Gorham, best known for TV roles on “Ugly Betty” and “Covert Affairs,” delivers a measured yet intense performance conveying both David’s mounting frustration with trying to get through to his unreachable son, and the man’s sense of guilt for not always being able to rise above his own flaws and limitations.

Feder, in the arguably trickier role, renders Po as a relatable kid who might not be easy to get to know, or sometimes even to tolerate, although he’s at heart a kind and optimistic dreamer, with a genius for following financial markets. In Po’s fantasies, he’s not regressing mentally, nor is he anti-social or sad; rather, he’s confident and articulate, happy to hang out with his imaginary pal, Jack (Andrew Bowen), who’s, alternately, a pirate, a cowboy, a wayward knight and a couple of other heroic personas Podreams up. Delineating Po’s attempts to reconcile his happier inner life with his turbulent real life, Feder finds meaningful dimension playing both sides of Po’s erratic personality.

The script, on the other hand, rains down one-dimensional obstacles, from David’s everything’s-riding-on-this corporate project, to a perfunctorily mean school bully who seems to have no purpose in life other than tormenting Po. To similar effect, Po’s imaginary inner world, which could have offered an intriguing interpretation of where a boy like Po might retreat in his head, instead is depicted as a one-note fairytale fantasy of cowboys and astronauts. Considering Po’s supposedly remarkable intellect, and his obsession with numbers, his fantasies aren’t that creatively conceived.

But the focus here is on feelings, not fantasy. The crisp and polished cinematography by Stephen Douglas Smith keeps David and Po’s emotional journey front and center, and nearly every would-be tear-jerking turn comes telegraphed, and over-, not underscored, by mawkish original music by legendary composer Burt Bacharach. Laid on abundantly, Bacharach’s minor-key themes lift some moments and bury others in solo piano and synthesized strings, seriously testing one’s limits for schmaltz. Yet somehow, despite any resistance to such aggressive plays for sentiment, the movie earns its final shot of Po in his land of dreams.

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