Friday, February 1, 2008

"Today's Man" shows complexities of a life with Asperger's

"Today's Man" premiered on PBS' Independent Lens a few weeks ago, and I found it to be a wonderfully realistic and unsentimental look into the life of Nicky Gottlieb, a young man with Asperger's syndrome. The fact that Nicky's sister, Lizzie Gottlieb, directed the documentary is what gives it its nuanced exploration of his life. Thankfully, she allows herself to be part of the story, which is as much about family dynamics as it is about Nicky, because he still lives with their parents.

She filmed the documentary over 8 years, and she says in an interview with New York magazine that she took so long because she was waiting for something to happen that would serve as a resolution or "ending" for the film. But the conclusion she comes to is that having an open ending is really the most fitting for the family and a person with Asperger's.

What I particularly liked about the documentary is that, although Lizzie is very close to her brother and obviously cares for him deeply, she doesn't sugarcoat his life or her own future as his only family after their parents' death.

Her look at Nicky's several failures at trying to hold down a job features brutal honesty about some of Nicky's negative behaviors and unrealistic beliefs about the work world. In one scene, a supervisor is pointing out some of Nicky's problems on the job, like going through someone else's mail and telling people inappropriate things when they call the office. I think Lizzie Gottlieb showed real bravery as a sister and a filmmaker in including that scene. It is that scene and many more like it that that don't shy away from complex behaviors that sometimes affect people with Asperger's and make it difficult for some of them to fully integrate into society.

Another poignant scene is when Lizzie and Nicky talk about what their future together will be, after the death of their parents. The scene is early in the film and it helps inform the feeling throughout the film that Lizzie and her parents must try to guide Nicky toward a more independent life not just for his sake, but for the good of the entire family.