Autistic teenager Duke Peters lives a life of silence. He has no voice to speak from and can seemingly only communicate through groans, shouts and violent outbursts. As his family begins to fall apart under the pressure of caring for him, Duke must find his voice in order to keep them all together. We take a look at Thiago Dadalt’s short film Duke.
Duke is the story of an autistic teen and the strain his disability has on the family unit. My admittance is that I too am the parent of an autistic child as my daughter was diagnosed with autism a few years ago and we are lucky that our little girl’s autism is not as severe as other forms of the disability are, including the non-verbal autism that the character of Duke Peters suffers from in this film.
What we do get is general autistic traits such as a need to do things in a particular order, a constant flapping of arms when her senses are stimulated and strange behaviours when she doesn’t get the stimulation she wants. Her need to check the texture of everything she touches or eats and regular screaming and shouting meltdowns when she finds her routine has been even slightly changed without her knowledge. They are called meltdowns because they are basically an explosion of emotion that can last for any length of time, 5 minutes or 5 hours.
As is often the case, the more severe the autism the more severe the outbursts and this can also include hitting, smacking and general violent behaviour. It’s tough and bruising bringing up an autistic child and although over the past few decades a lot of progress has been made with regards to dealing with autism medically, what now needs more work is actually helping other people, and communities who don’t encounter autism regularly, to understand it. Thiago Dadalt and fellow writer/producer Dru Miller’s Duke manages to go some way in providing that outcome.
Based on a true story, 17-year-old Duke Peters (Robert Solomon) suffers from severe autism; he cannot speak or communicate with anyone in any meaningful way. His family has tried in vain to get him the help and support he and they desperately need but no help is forthcoming; they are alone in this world, banging their heads in frustration at the system while Duke is alone in his world, banging his own head in frustration at the disability he suffers from. Solomon is excellent as Duke; his mannerism and gestures are spot on. He is less showy than the more famous portraits of autism we have seen on film and this containment makes his performance far more touching. It is clear to see he had done a lot of preparation for the role and it pays off handsomely.
However, the film ultimately belongs to Piercey Dalton who plays Duke’s mum Brenda. Her character is the funnel for the audience. The person we relate to, root for and believe in. Duke is seventeen and all those years of pain and suffering are etched on every pore of Dalton’s face. Her heartbreak and grief are audible in every line of dialogue she speaks and it’s visible in every move she makes. It’s a powerhouse performance and it completely dazzles. The penultimate family scene when Duke is found to have typed a sentence on his tablet, finally communicating with his kin after years of silence, is so real and believable it becomes genuinely heartbreaking.
The cinematography is majestic as every scene is carefully framed and every close up actually means something, helping to further the narrative. Dadalt deserves great credit as his direction is superb managing to coax some astonishing performances from his cast as well as creating an atmosphere of hope and joy from what seems like an impossible situation.
Duke belies it’s status as a low budget indy film because everything about it comes across as actually first rate. From the performances and the images to the story and the production values, it all screams professional. The biggest praise that I can give it is that Duke manages to move the conversation about autism further along the path of understanding and the more we learn about this disability, the more we can change the lives of the people who suffer from it. So in that sense, Dadalt’s film is an extremely touching and hugely important piece of work. Get to see it as soon as you can.