The Best Movies of the Year: Kimi's Riveting, Respectful Redefinition of On-Screen Autism

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The Best Movies of the Year: <i>Kimi</i>'s Riveting, Respectful Redefinition of On-Screen Autism

A modern update on the jangling conspiratorial thrills of films like The Conversation and Blow Out, Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi was a jolt of energy for me in the early days of 2022 that no film since has been able to replicate. Nearly a decade since he announced his premature retirement, the Oscar-winning director demonstrated yet again that he’s one of the most relevant filmmakers in the game, centering his latest around tech worker Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) as she tries to unravel a crime overheard by the eponymous Alexa-like device.

Soderbergh is a remarkable craftsman, so even on a surface level Kimi was always going to be a masterfully executed bit of pulp entertainment. But what makes this film more than mere “imitation Blow Out” is its lead. In bringing the paranoia thriller into the modern age, Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp have also delivered a film with a keen eye in correcting long-damaging cinematic tropes around the portrayal of Autistic characters.

Kimi never explicitly states that Angela is Autistic, which has tellingly led to a few different interpretations of the character over the past year. Read any plot synopsis and the word “agoraphobic” comes up. The phrase “way too difficult.” Others mention obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Plenty of disorders in this sphere have overlapping traits that could make these all valid interpretations—well, except the “difficult” one. But for me, there’s so much about Angela that felt like it was specifically mirroring my experience as an Autistic person. In that way, it’s perhaps the most I’ve felt represented by a character on the spectrum in any film to date.

For people with only the most broad understanding of neurodiversity, they might not even be aware of Angela’s Autistic coding. This isn’t Rain Man or The Other Sister; films that throw every exaggerated tick and behavioral idiosyncrasy at the wall to allow an actor to go to town with a performance completely separated from reality. Kimi doesn’t even feel the need to specifically state the character’s neurotype—its most overt signpost being a quick but pointed shot of her puzzle-piece keychain—but any Autistic person watching the film will pick up on it quickly.

When most people think of what autism looks like, they probably imagine the nerdy, socially awkward, monotone cisgender white boy with really niche interests that folks tend to avoid, like Sherlock Holmes on BBC’s Sherlock or Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. However, these examples portray just one narrow end of the spectrum, which contributes to the limited understanding of a condition that is much more diverse.

While Kimi is clearly a thriller from the onset, it’s remarkable how much the first half of the film lets us into Angela’s perspective and shows us her world. Taking place in the fairly early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Seattle (lockdowns are over, but many people are still wearing masks in public), Angela has shut herself off from the threat of the outside. She’s working from home for a tech company called Amygdala, scrubbing audio streams picked up by Kimis in order to manually account for words and phrases the devices don’t yet understand. Angela maintains a strict routine, voicing a complaint with a construction worker in the apartment upstairs when he and his team begin making a ruckus during the agreed upon time where they wouldn’t be working. Her work station has many screens; she puts her headphones over her ears and wires in as she shuts off the world outside. This type of deeply analytical and observant job is one that we tend to see in portrayals of Autistic characters, yet it’s just as interesting to notice how this particular job allows her to isolate from others and remain in her home—the place she has meticulously built to be a safe haven.

Through her large apartment window, she observes the little sliver of the world she can see, including her across-the-street neighbor Terry (Byron Bowers), with whom she has taken up a flirtation. She texts Terry, asking him if he wants to meet at the food truck between their buildings for “one of those egg things,” and he accepts. It’s clear this act is an attempt to push herself through the safe, confined bubble she’s become used to, and we see her go through the meticulous routine of attempting to leave the home—far more arduous for her than it is for Terry, who can just throw on his clothes and head out the door. She gathers up the strength to breach her comfort zone and fulfill her needs, but when she gets to the door she just can’t seem to open it. She freezes and—devastated, disappointed in herself—she drops to the floor and accepts she won’t make it out.

Later on, after he gets back from work, she is able to invite Terry over and the two have sex. While he seems like a fairly nice guy, their interaction exhibits the crushing frustrations of attempting to forge romantic or sexual relationships that many Autistics experience. While Terry doesn’t question the fact that Angela needs to wash her sheets immediately after they finish (this isn’t the first time they’ve done this, so one imagines he’s used to it by now), he does chide her for having fake posts on her Instagram that she uses to make herself appear more “normal,” and pressures her to go outside with him sometime to a food spot. Despite her being visibly uncomfortable, he keeps prodding by offering platitudes like “we’ll go super early, barely anyone will be there” until she has to firmly stand her ground, upset with him because she had stated before that she didn’t want him to pressure her for things like this.

It’s an interaction sadly all too familiar for Autistic folks like Angela, who are used to being perceived as “odd” or “difficult,” and Kimi clearly shows us how many facets of her life this lack of understanding has invaded. A conversation with her mother over FaceTime begins with her mother asking “What’s wrong?” rather than a standard “Hey, how are you?” She quickly dives into pressuring Angela to be more like others, saying “I thought you were getting better.” Angela tells her that the pandemic was a big setback, true for so many neurodiverse people who were given more reason to be afraid of a world that already didn’t feel like it was built for us. The strain it took to “mask” (to put up a “more neurotypical” front in order to fit in) became even more difficult.

A severe toothache leads Angela to a call with her dentist, who tells her that it’s abcessed and she needs to come in for a root canal. The fear of having to go out in the world is so severe that she says she’s not able to do this, and that she just needs some antibiotics or painkillers to get through it. He demands that she’s “perfectly capable” of coming into the office, clearly exasperated by her and sick of hearing it. For Angela, it’s a constant war, having to reinforce her boundaries and the accommodations she requires in order to live comfortably—which feels like (ahem) pulling teeth when you don’t fit into a neurotypical relationship with the world.

One of the key elements that allows Kimi to stand apart from films like Rain Man is that we experience everything through Angela’s perspective. She guides us through the film, we are in her shoes, her world; when something is an affront to her, it is an affront to us. Every obstacle is one that we feel, as opposed to Rain Man, where every notion of difficulty presented by Dustin Hoffman is an obstacle for Tom Cruise’s neurotypical lead. In Kimi, we see how the obstacle isn’t that “she’s so difficult,” but rather that there is a lack of care and understanding from the people around her.

It’s a crucial distinction that makes Kimi so effective in never slipping over into these outdated, ableist tropes that feed into harmful stigmas and would make a neurodiverse person watching this feel worse about themselves. Instead, as was the case for me, there is something remarkably validating in Angela’s struggle to interact with the world around her, because the film’s perspective allows us to see that, yes, this is a struggle. Yes, it shouldn’t be this hard to have your accommodations met. For people to respect established boundaries and trust that we know what’s best for ourselves. To be a bit more patient and open up doors for how best to communicate with us. Maybe come over to our place instead of pressuring us to go out into the world, or ask us what we would need in order to feel comfortable in an environment outside of our home.

With that foundation set, Kimi jolts us into the main thrust of the narrative, as she uncovers what she reasonably believes to be a murder in one of her work’s audio recordings and attempts to investigate. She follows the chain of command and flags the issue to her higher-ups—including a sensational one-scene appearance later on by a dastardly patronizing Rita Wilson—but they don’t want to hear what she has to say. They don’t want the added burden. Accepting that a murder happened which they could have prevented, or that they should be doing anything about, is simply more work for them. It’s better off ignored. Angela wanting to do the right thing is just a nuisance. Her pleas are met with the exact kind of irritation she received from her mom, her dentist, Terry.

Once a neurodiverse person (or anyone with a disability) is painted as “difficult” or “irrational”, it becomes so easy for people to dismiss everything you say. Angela has also experienced trauma at her previous work, which only further enables people to chalk things up to her being hysterical and getting worked up over nothing. Angela is blocked at every turn by people who refuse to communicate over email or phone, eventually requiring her to leave home in order to continue this pursuit of justice.

When she opens the door and heads outside, the aesthetic dramatically changes. Soderbergh overwhelms us with the blaring light of day and the sonic cavalcade of the busy streets, having us feel what it’s like to be in Angela’s skin. He places her in the corner of the frame, so tiny as she crams herself up against a wall to avoid being touched by passersby. This sensory overload—bombarded by an array of unfamiliar sights, sounds and textures—is perhaps the closest I’ve personally felt to a film mirroring my own experience, incredible in its activation of all senses to situate us in Angela’s shoes. We’re no longer in a controlled bubble, and the shift is terrifying.

The final sections of Kimi can act as a metaphor for what it’s like to try and navigate the world as a neurodiverse person, as the fears Angela has about being attacked for stepping outside of her comfort zone become literalized when Amygdala and its goons try to silence her by lethal means. Her fear that stepping outside of her bubble could lead to danger is immediately confirmed.

Kimi could have simply riffed on nervy paranoia thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and with Koepp on the page and Soderbergh behind the camera, it surely could have still been one of the best films of the year and a riveting formal exercise. Instead, the duo and a tremendous Kravitz gave us a character with so much dimensionality. On-screen autism so often looks like a Rain Man or an Other Sister or, in recent years, the opposite-but-just-as-offensive route of The Accountant or 2018’s godforsaken The Predator, where the condition is treated as some kind of superpower that makes you predisposed to being a highly capable assassin or the next step in human evolution.

Angela Childs isn’t a superhero. She’s just struggling to get through the day in a world that isn’t designed to accommodate her. She’s discovered a wrong and wants to make it right. Kimi could have been a thriller about anyone. Replace this character with someone neurotypical and it more or less functions the same. It’s a thriller about a character who, I believe, happens to be Autistic, without the need to shout it big and loud. That kind of representation is the most thrilling there is, as it demonstrates that people like Angela are out here in the world experiencing the same kinds of stories as other characters in film—just with their own perspective, one which Kimi captures with aplomb. It’s easy to see why neurodiverse circles and people with stigmatized disorders would relate strongly to Angela’s sense of the world, and why the film resonated so much for me.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.