Imaginative animations and childlike designs act as 3D pop-ups throughout Nathan’s Kingdom, an inventive and earnest portrayal of life as a young adult living with autism. It’s a potent coming of age tale working to redefine industry-wide stereotypes, resolutely simmering with authenticity. Dynamically acted with a punch of poignancy, this low-budget indie film is impressively revolutionary on two counts – by way of novel substance and phenomenal aesthetics.
Nathan (Jacob Lince) is a 25-year-old dependant on his younger teenage sister, Laura (Madison Ford). The two are on their own, no parents to speak of, battling social services which want to remove Nathan from Laura’s care. Deftly placed flashbacks open the narrative by explaining that when the two were kids, their father abandoned the family after an argument with Nathan. An unspoken but glaringly obvious reason for their dad walking out was his inability to manage an autistic child.
Nathan’s Kingdom is as much a story about the perspective of an adult living with autism, as it is about what it means to take care of someone with the condition. The lead characters strive to escape reality by acting out scenes from Nathan’s fantastical kingdom, a utopia-like mythical land we are introduced to in the opening segment when an adolescent Laura describes the idea to her older brother.
This kingdom becomes a focal point and obsession for Nathan, even ten years later. It’s a place he has painstakingly created through hundreds of drawings and characters. Nathan’s kingdom is a point of escape, and a place he is constantly seeking in real life. We learn that the fantasy kingdom is a land where no pain, hurt, or sickness exists. Most of all, it’s a place where loneliness doesn’t live.
Intent on finding this form of Nirvana, and also subconsciously setting out to help perpetually angry, pill-addicted Laura find her peace, Nathan leads them on an expedition into the sandy mountains, through perilous underground mines, and around lush forests in a desperate hunt for the place that will solve all of their problems.
“…lead characters strive to escape reality by acting out scenes from Nathan’s fantastical kingdom, a utopia-like mythical land.”
Meanwhile, an increasingly exasperated Laura tags along, fluctuating between playing pretend alongside her older brother in childlike glee, and growing infuriated with his preoccupation with a place she doesn’t believe is real. She herself battles through her own slew of problems, clearly drowning in her role as caretaker.
The aesthetic appeal also wins heavily here, a combination of Pete Villani’s cinematography and William J. Meyer’s lively animation accentuating the storyline divide of real life vs. fantasy. make their adventure all the more pleasing.
Writer and director Olicer Muñoz is impossibly talented at pulling the viewer into both perspectives of either sibling, his script providing a window for the viewer into the outlook of what both feel about what their conflicts. He presents a layered plot, sprinkled with delightful graphics, and enticingly leads us to an honest conclusion that both pains you and fills you with relief. There just isn’t an antagonist in this story, and that’s because Muñoz spotlights the individual talent of his actors into a piece fraught with spiraling, realistic emotion. What he does best is showcases how those with autism see the world differently, why this should be celebrated, and the hardships involved.
Impactful character development for the cast of Nathan’s Kingdom is another accomplishment worth noting. The acting is excellent all around but wobbles a bit during times of extreme duress for Madison Ford’s Laura. Otherwise convincing in her role as a teen who has had to grow up too quickly, there are particular instances when she is caught in arguments with Nathan where Ford’s performance is more hollow than it is believable.
Jacob Lince is an autistic actor portraying an autistic character, which he does spectacularly, making Nathan accessible yet credible to his condition. Lince singlehandedly shatters the stereotypical persona of an autistic character in the entertainment industry, where disabilities tend to be oversimplified (take Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man and Jodie Foster’s Nell, as popular but glorified examples). From panic-driven breakdowns to moments of soft sincerity, the actor never fails to enact a moving scene.
“…a potent coming of age tale working to redefine industry-wide stereotypes, resolutely simmering with authenticity.”
There’s a level of disconnect that exists between Laura and Nathan, threaded with a fervent attachment, which is both parts uncomfortable and poignant to experience. It’s a necessary part of the sibling relationship, and is not lost to the viewer; yet another testament to the directorial genius Muñoz displays in this piece. Nathan needs Laura, but the reliance is not merely one-sided. Even though it takes her a while to come to the realization, Laura acknowledges that she needs Nathan, too.
Supporting characters help the two along with their journey to the fictitious destination, namely Jimmy (Peter Mendoza) and Noel (John F. Henry). Mendoza’s quiet but compassionate Jimmy is complimented by Henry’s gruff but perceptive Noel. Both are sound additions to the narrative, keeping Nathan’s Kingdom from being a two-player only depiction. Henry as Noel especially adds a level of fatherly empathy to a tale devoid of parental figures. “It’s your kingdom, Nathan. Nobody else has to believe in it for it to be real but you…”
Everything works in Nathan’s Kingdom. Not only does the movie feature 3D animations, but the narrative itself is tangible, bound to enrapture the audience long past its runtime. The ability to grasp a viewer as wholly as Nathan’s Kingdom manages to do is not a frequent occurrence and makes this dark fantasy one you don’t want to pass on. Let us do exactly as the team behind it asks of those who watch; celebrate a work that shatters the glass ceiling for actors with disabilities. This film is magical and deserves nothing less.
Nathan’s Kingdom (2018) Written and directed by Olicer J. Muñoz. Starring Jacob Lince, Madison Ford, Peter Mendoza, John F. Henry.
10 out of 10 stars