It may have all the hallmarks of standard fodder for fall film fests, audience awards, but Esraabout an 11-year-old who is undeniably on the spectrum, rightly earns its audience stripes thanks to its excellent ensemble and sensitive direction that never gets in the way of its skilful script.
Bobby Cannavale puts it all on screen as a New Jersey stand-up comic who constantly clashes with his ex-wife (Rose Byrne) over the best way to raise their autistic son (impressive newcomer William A. Fitzgerald). while also arguing with his uncommunicative father (Robert De Niro).
It comes down to
Goes home with a winning ensemble.
But even a charismatic cast could only have carried this kind of scenario so far if not for a tender script from Tony Spiridakis, informed by the challenges of raising his own, now 24-year-old, neurodivergent son, and a confident one at that. but understated guiding hand from actor-director Goldwyn. Whether or not it emerges as a festival awards contender, the as-yet unconfirmed title, which had its world premiere at TIFF, deserves a premium buyer (even if they ultimately opt for a title change, lest some get the impression it’s the Ezra Miller is story, that is a completely different ball of wax).
Cannavale’s Max Bernal prefers storytelling to conventional jokes and often works his challenging relationship with his son, Ezra (Fitzgerald), into his material, which doesn’t necessarily deliver the biggest laughs. As Max’s supportive manager, Jayne (Whoopi Goldberg), puts it, “I really want you to fly, but you keep bombing the runway.”
Despite being as sharp as a pin, reading The New York Times Since the age of five, Ezra’s lack of filter and impulsive outbursts (metal forks and bananas are among his trigger mechanisms) have gotten him expelled from more than one school. But in the latest incident, when mother Jenna (Byrne) reluctantly agrees to a doctor’s recommendation that Alex go to a special needs facility and be given Risperdal (an antipsychotic used to treat everything from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder ), Max in denial has other ideas. .
He kidnaps his son in the middle of the night, takes off in the old car of his hotel doorman father, Stan (De Niro), and goes on an impromptu field trip. While the idea of a cross-country film road trip could very easily raise warning signs (looking at you, Green Book), especially with Jenna and Stan in hot pursuit, the script takes the characters in some unexpected directions, evading an Amber Alert by making a pit stop at a camp run by an old comic friend (Rainn Wilson) and a another on the farm that belongs to a caring woman from Max’s past (Vera Farmiga). Although the final destination turns out to be Hollywood, where Max has landed a spot on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, it’s the journey that proves most rewarding.
Cannavale knows he has been given a great role and he really goes for it; he’s completely believable as both a Mort Sahl-style stand-up comedian and as a fiercely protective father whose desire for Ezra to live a “normal” life occasionally blinds him to what best serves his son. His interplay with the young Fitzgerald, remarkable in his first professional appearance, never feels less than authentic, as does his heated banter with De Niro, who here brings a heavy but tender conviction that isn’t always evident in his supporting roles .
Although the cheerful coda seems to give the impression that the journey has somehow managed to change some of Ezra’s behavior for the better – which is of course more the stuff of Hollywood endings – that hope is still understandable.
“I don’t want him in his own world,” Max protests. “I want him in this world!” For families affected by autism, Esra makes convincing use of those all too familiar feelings.
Location: Toronto International Film Festival (special presentations)
Production companies: Closer Media, Wayfarer Studios, Wonderful Films, Rahway Road
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro, William A. Fitzgerald, Vera Farmiga, Tony Goldwyn, Rainn Wilson
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Screenwriter: Tony Spiridakis
Producers: William Horberg, Jon Kilik, Tony Goldwyn, Tony Spiridakis
Executive Producers: Zhang
Director of Photography: Danny Moder
Production Designer: Dan Leigh
Costume Designer: Donna Berwick
Editor: Sabine Hofman
Music: Carlos Rafael Rivera
Casting: Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee
Sales: CAA (US), Mister Smith Entertainment (International)
1 hour 40 minutes