“…it is highly significant that a young actor with autism was selected for the role of Alan and that the filmmakers worked with him in a very sensitive and empathetic manner.”
By Nils Skudra
I recently had the opportunity to watch Dear John, a heartwarming 2010 film based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel about two young people whose summer romance is challenged by the title character’s prolonged military service overseas. While this film is not specifically about autism, I felt that it would be a worthwhile piece for review since two of its supporting characters are on the autism spectrum, and the filmmakers took a unique approach in choosing a young actor who has autism in real life for one of these roles. Considering the growing trend for casting actors with disabilities in the roles of disabled protagonists, this film undoubtedly took an unprecedented step at the time of its release, which can hopefully serve as a model for the future casting of neurodiverse actors in the roles of neurodiverse characters.
The film opens by introducing John Tyree (Channing Tatum), a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces who is deployed in Afghanistan in 2003. Wounded in action, he reminisces about his childhood trip to the U.S. Mint, comparing himself to a coin as a solder in the military: “I was minted in the year 1980. I’ve been punched from sheet metal. I’ve been stamped and cleaned. My edges have been rimmed and beveled. But now I have two small holes in me. I’m no longer in perfect condition.” He subsequently remarks that the last thing he thought about before blacking out was “you,” referring to the correspondent to whom his letter is addressed.
The film then flashes back to the spring of 2001, when John is on leave in Charleston, South Carolina. While strolling along the beach, he meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on spring break who is engaged in building homes for Habitat for Humanity. She invites him to a bonfire, where he meets her neighbor Tim (Henry Thomas) and his son Alan (Braeden Reed), who displays a series of visible autistic traits, including a tendency to repeat certain statements and difficulty with eye contact. Savannah reveals that she has helped Tim with taking care of Alan since she was a teenager and that this experience has profoundly influenced her career aspirations, as she seeks to establish a therapeutic horseback riding center for children with special needs. Although John does not show much understanding of autism at this point, he gets along well with Alan, and he soon falls in love with Savannah after going on several dates.
John subsequently introduces Savannah to his father Bill (Richard Jenkins), an eccentric loner who displays a significant fixation on his coin collection, together with an immense knowledge of the history behind certain coins. He also exhibits difficulties with eye contact and a tendency to have a different meal scheduled for certain nights, which John is somewhat offput by. From her observations of Bill’s behavior, Savannah deduces that he might have Asperger’s Syndrome, like Alan, but this leads to a heated argument between her and John.
Upon hearing her inference about the possible reason behind his father’s unique traits, John remarks, “I’ve had to put up with him my whole life. I know my father’s weird, but he’s not a retard.” John’s use of this epithet upsets Savannah, who replies, “Alan is autistic, not retarded.” Nevertheless, John angrily accuses her of secretly studying him and Bill all this time, which leads to a brief period of estrangement between the two of them.
After Savannah and John reconcile, they agree to continue their relationship via letters, promising to be transparent with each other. Their plans for starting a life together are interrupted, however, by the September 11 attacks, which prompt John to request an extension of his overseas deployment without consulting Savannah. When she learns about this at a family party, she is deeply distressed, but John promises that he will continue corresponding with her. As his service in Afghanistan turns from months into years, Savannah finds it difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship with John, and she begins spending more time with Tim and Alan, which further strengthens her desire to work with autistic children. Ultimately, this leads her to write a letter to John two years later, announcing that she’s decided to end their relationship since she is engaged to someone else. John is heartbroken by this news, shortly after which he receives his combat wound featured in the film’s opening.
Upon recovering and returning home four years later, John discovers that Savannah has married Tim and given up her plans of building a riding camp for autistic children due to Tim’s struggle with Lymphoma. During their hospital visit, Tim indicates that Savannah still loves John, but their subsequent argument that night prevents them from resolving their feelings and renewing their relationship. After John leaves, he decides to sell his father’s coin collection (except for the mule coin that his father especially cherished), with the secret purpose of raising money for Tim’s cancer treatment, and then returns to the military. In her final letter to John, Savannah reveals that Tim has died after two months of treatment, followed by a heartfelt confession:
“The problem with time, I’ve learned, whether it’s those first two weeks I got to spend with you, or the final two months I got to spend with him, eventually time always runs out. I have no idea where you are out there in the world, John. But I understand that I lost the right to know these things long ago. No matter how many years go by, I know one thing to be as true as ever was – I’ll see you soon then.”
The film thus ends on a sorrowful but hopeful note, leaving open the possibility of John and Savannah getting back together.
Dear John is a compelling and heartwarming drama that features astute performances by the cast. Tatum and Seyfried bring a strong chemistry to their moments together on-screen, and Jenkins delivers a convincing portrayal of John’s father as an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. Most intriguing of all, however, is the filmmakers’ casting of Braeden Reed, a real-life child actor with autism, in the role of Alan since he brings a unique authenticity and sensitivity to his performance. In one of the film’s special features, the filmmakers elaborate upon their experience working with Braeden as an autistic actor, pointing out that while other neurotypical actors must learn how to display the mannerisms of characters with autism, Braeden did not require much instruction in this regard since he brought his genuine self to the role.
In addition, they discuss how they needed to be very specific with him in giving certain directions since autistic individuals do not think in abstract terms, such as “Be back in a while,” but rather in highly definite terms, such as “Be back in five minutes.” Considering the widespread trend in Hollywood of casting neurotypical actors in the roles of autistic protagonists, it is highly significant that a young actor with autism was selected for the role of Alan and that the filmmakers worked with him in a very sensitive and empathetic manner. Given that there is now a growing demand for greater representation of characters with disabilities by actors with disabilities, which some filmmakers have pursued in productions such as Peanut Butter Falcon and Keep the Change, Dear John provides an inspiring model for casting neurodivergent actors and working with them sensitively and respectfully, which future filmmakers will hopefully emulate.
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 Asperger’s Syndrome, 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.