Adjectives like “sincere,” “well-intentioned” and even “committed” are suitable for “A Boy Called Po,” but others, like “good” or “convincing,” are sadly inapplicable. John Anders’ film about an autistic boy and his recently-widowed father comes from the heart—he has an autistic child himself—but it is riddled with cliché, and even the two dedicated performances at its center can’t salvage it.
Patrick Wilson (Julian Feder), who prefers to be called Po, is a sixth-grader regularly bullied at school by a Nelson Muntz wannabe, Taylor Martz (Tristian Chase), who pokes fun at him for his condition. His campus situation is ameliorated somewhat by a sweetly supportive classmate, Amelia (Caitlin Carmichael) and his considerate teacher, but the principal is still of the opinion that he might be better off elsewhere.
At home his father David (Christopher Gorham) struggles to deal with Po’s outbursts and the boy’s reluctance to be touched, as well as Po’s insistence on being served mac and cheese, which doesn’t give him the roughage he needs. David is also grieving his wife’s death, of course—a matter he refuses to discuss with Po, who keeps inquiring about his mother’s whereabouts. David is also under terrible pressure at work: he’s an engineer whose project—a hybrid airliner—stubbornly refuses to fly because of engine weight. The appearance of social worker Bill (Brian George), who seems suspicious of the environment David is providing for his son, is also a source of concern, though Po’s spunky therapist Amy (Kaitlin Doubleday) provides an oasis of hope.
Po has a rich fantasy life, marked by excursions into episodes in which he interacts quite easily with a character named Jack (Andrew Bowen), who takes on various guises—a pirate, a knight and so on. Jack happens to be the school janitor, a mentally-challenged man who tries to protect the boy.
Colin Goldman’s script obviously wants to depict the life of an autistic child and his loving but overwhelmed caregiver in a realistic way, but the attempt to do so too often takes the various plot threads into saccharine mode, with the episodes involving Jack and Amelia particularly bogus, due in no little part to amateurish acting (and some awful effects). Feder is certainly energetic as Po, but he’s unable to give coherence to the character because of the way in which Goldman and Asher vacillate in their treatment of him. Gorham, meanwhile, contributes a sense of seriousness to David, but his office scenes (some with Sean Gunn, overdoing it as his colleague) are simply awful. Better are his scenes with Doubleday, who quickly becomes a romantic interest, and George, whose seeming officiousness turns out to contain a large dose of empathy.
The worst element of “A Boy Called Po,” however, is certainly the contrivance of the final reel. One can’t object to a happy ending in a film like this, which, despite toying with genuine problems (the loss of medical insurance, for example) is not really presented as a gritty, uncompromising study of family dysfunction in the face of tragedy. Asher’s picture, however, isn’t content with a simple happy ending; it offers a cascade of them, mechanically ticking off each problem the script has raised and resolving it with a wave of the hand—or a magic wand. (A plane that won’t fly? Here’s the solution, as absurd as it seems! Bullying at school? Here’s the simple answer! Financial difficulties? Toss in a twist that repeats one from “The Book of Henry.”) By the close the picture has devolved into a fairy-tale treatment not only of autism but of the other issues the script has raised along the way.
This film was clearly a labor of love for Asher, who served as editor as well as director, and, it seems, also for Burt Bacharach, whose song “Close to You” is used repeatedly, surrounded by tinkling piano riffs he also contributes. But love often goes unrequited, and the song adds a further layer of sappiness to a picture than certainly doesn’t need one. Despite good intentions, this is a disappointing treatment of a subject that deserves better.