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Ezra Depicts Struggles, Joys of Dealing with a Child with Autism
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Saturday, March 9, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

When Tony Spiridakis began writing a screenplay about a father and his autistic son 15 years ago, the  incidence of children with autism was one in 10,000. Today it is one in 35.

Happily, Spiridakis' screenplay has been transformed into a wonderful full-length feature film called "Ezra," which was the lead-off film for the Sun Valley Film Festival last week.

The film was inspired by screenwriter Tony Spiridakis's own experiences as a father with  a child with autism, his own son now 25. He has treated the subject respectfully and thoughtfully, depicting the spectrum of experiences from public tantrums to the highs of a father-son bond to the epiphanies that Ezra shares.

"Robert DeNiro also has a son with autism," filmmaker Tony Goldwyn told a packed audience at The Argyros. "We were able to tell it with comedy yet still get deep into the emotion. Tony, for instance, was able to show what he went through with school medication. You still have to make the movie entertaining while keeping it real and authentic. Autism touches so many lives--making this movie was hard to do but so important."

The film shows the desperation of a stand-up comedian father, played by Bobby Cannavale, who attended the Sun Valley Film Festival, as he tried to give his 11-year-old son dignity amidst prescribed medications and an altercation at school. He butts heads with his ex-wife played by Rose Byrne and engenders a tender emotional moment with his father played by Robert DeNiro. Whoopi Goldberg plays his manager.

Ezra can read The New York Times, even though he didn't learn to speak until a late age. But his emotional outbursts have  gotten him expelled from multiple schools. His father loses it when Ezra's mother agrees to a doctor's recommendation that  he attend a special needs institution and begin taking an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Goldwyn said the casting crew conducted a nationwide search for a young teen to play the part of Ezra. They found what they were looking for right in William A. Fitzgerald in New Jersey, not 10 minutes from the filming location.

"The boy's parents and sister are amazing people. They came to the set nearly every day. I've witnessed over 20 handicapped performances in the films I've made, and this kid was unbelievable."

There were a couple challenging moments, among them a scene in the woods that took place when Ezra and his father were fleeing for which Ezra had to delve deep into his emotions.

But cast and crew prevailed and, hopefully, the world will gain a better appreciation of autism as a result.

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