by Nils Skudra
Recently I had the opportunity to watch A Man Called Otto, a heartwarming comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks as Otto, a grumpy and bitter retiree who routinely insults his neighbors and enforces the traffic rules of his condominium neighborhood until he is befriended by an immigrant family that moves in next door. Based on the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, this film provides an excellent portrayal of a protagonist who exhibits signs of autism in terms of his specialized interests, exacting mannerisms, and social difficulties. Considering this, I felt that A Man Called Otto would be a noteworthy topic for a film review.
The film opens by introducing Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks), a senior citizen who has recently retired from his long-term career at a local steel company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He displays a grumpy and hostile attitude toward everyone he encounters, including his coworkers despite their attempts to give him a cheerful going-away party, which he dismisses as pointless. In addition, he exhibits a very literal mindset toward rules, regulations, and prices; this brings him into conflict with the staff at a local hardware store when he seeks to buy a certain length of rope but is charged a higher price for the whole rope. Infuriated, he demands to speak to the store manager, arguing that he should only have to pay for the length of rope that he requested, but when the manager fails to comply with Otto’s request, he insults the staff members, calling them “idiots” and “nitwits” before leaving the store.
Otto also brings his exacting attitude and literal mindset to the condominium neighborhood where he lives, acting as the self-appointed enforcer of local policies relating to traffic, garbage, and recycling. In doing so, he acts belligerently toward his neighbors and anyone who makes a minor violation of neighborhood rules and regulations, regularly calling them “idiots” or “nitwits.” He even shows hostility toward a local dog owner, threatening to have the dog turned into a rug if it barks at him or relieves itself on his lawn. Although some of the neighbors try to show friendliness toward Otto, he alienates them through his rudeness, which earns him the reputation of being “the grumpy old man” on the block.
Otto’s character traits are highly emblematic of autism since autistic people tend to have very literal thought patterns toward everything, which is exemplified by Otto’s argument with the staff at the hardware store over his rope purchase. This also fits in with the tendency among autistic individuals to follow very strict routines since they show a strong preference for a structured and orderly environment, which Otto demonstrates through his petty enforcement of neighborhood policies. Furthermore, his social ineptitude is reflective of the challenges that many autistic individuals have with social interaction since they often struggle with observing proper social etiquette and grasping common social cues. In Otto’s case, this is taken to an extreme level through his hostile and belligerent attitude toward everyone.
Things take a turn in Otto’s life when an immigrant couple, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their two children move in next door. Initially, Otto chastises Tommy for his incompetent driving as he tries parking the car, and he displays uncertainty toward Marisol’s arroz con pollo dish, which she brings as a gift. However, when he learns that Marisol relies on Tommy for driving since she does not have a license, Otto takes it upon himself to give her driving lessons. As she starts to panic during the lesson due to the traffic behind her, Otto bluntly tells her:
“Now you listen to me. You have given birth to two children. Soon it’ll be three. You have come here from a country very far away. You learned a new language, you got yourself an education, and a nitwit husband, and you are holding that family together. You will have no problem learning how to drive. My God, the world is full of complete idiots who have managed to figure it out, and you are not a complete idiot.”
This speech marks an important turning point in Otto’s attitude toward Marisol. Up until this point, he has been rude and hostile, denigrating everyone he comes in contact with, but through his relationship with Marisol and her family he begins to show a softer and more compassionate side, which is exemplified in his encouragement to her during this scene. This dramatic change in the storyline is immediately balanced with some humor thrown in, as he belligerently confronts the driver honking at Marisol and shouts at him, “This is a student driver! Show some respect, idiot!” Following this episode, Otto takes Marisol to a local café which he regularly frequented with his late wife Sonya.
During his conversation with Marisol at the café, Otto’s backstory is revealed through flashbacks. As a young man (played by Tom Hanks’ real-life son Truman Hanks), Otto meets Sonya (Rachel Keller) on a train after retrieving a book that she had misplaced. When they go out on a date, Otto relates his fascination with cars and how his father taught him everything about cars. This is another distinguishing trait of autism since autistic individuals tend to have very narrow and specialized interests which they excel in. At the same time, Otto also shows signs of social awkwardness during his date with Sonya since she asks him why he has not eaten any of his food, to which he responds that he wanted to see what she would have. This awkwardness, however, quickly gives way to a romantic moment when Sonya breaks the tension by spontaneously kissing Otto in front of the whole restaurant, which leads to their marriage soon after.
Although Otto’s married life began happily, he and Sonya encountered tragedy when they were caught in a bus accident which resulted in her becoming paralyzed and suffering a miscarriage. In addition, their friendship with a neighboring couple, Anita and Reuben, became estranged due to Reuben’s preference for Fords and Toyotas over Otto’s Chevrolets and the removal of Otto as chairman of the neighborhood association board following his angry confrontation with a real estate representative over the neighborhood’s lack of accessibility for Sonya.
These events, together with Sonya’s recent passing, have left Otto embittered and depressed, which has led him to make several unsuccessful suicide attempts. However, when another suicide attempt is interrupted by an old man fainting and falling on the railroad tracks, Otto saves the man from an approaching train, and the incident goes viral, earning Otto a newfound celebrity status. From this point onward, he grows closer with Marisol’s family and begins to show compassion toward others in his neighborhood, taking in a stray cat and fixing a bicycle for Malcolm (Mack Bayda), a local transgender teen who recounts that Sonya, his former teacher, was one of the few people who accepted him for who he was. The ultimate test of Otto’s empathy, however, comes when Anita and Reuben are faced with the impending seizure of their home by the real estate company, which forces Otto to come to terms with old grudges in the interest of helping the people closest to him.
A Man Called Otto features a compelling and heartwarming storyline, brought to life by stellar performances. Tom Hanks delivers a brilliant portrayal of Otto, capturing his quirks and idiosyncrasies with charm and humor, while Mariana Treviño superbly brings warmth and compassion to the role of Marisol, teaching Otto the important lesson that no one is truly alone and that having others in his life can bring a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Furthermore, the film provides a sensitive perspective on the life of an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome whose social tendencies earn him the reputation of the “grumpy old man” but who becomes an empathetic person through the close bond that he develops with an immigrant family. Viewers will find this film both entertaining and instructive, and it will hopefully inspire them to give the benefit of the doubt to neurodivergent individuals and reach out to them in the spirit of friendship and connection.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.