It’s no secret that teenagers and pre-teens are heavily influenced by movies, TV shows, books, and pop music. All at-sea in the unknown waters of adolescence, they look for characters, real or imagined, to identify with. They are less likely to care how “sympathetic” such characters are — or how much they uphold socially endorsed values — than how much they can relate to their experience. When I was growing up, my favorite movie was the Hal Ashby-Colin Higgins black comedy, Harold and Maude, released in late 1971. The main character, Harold (played by Bud Cort) is a dark-haired and solitary dreamer. He wears black, drives a hearse, and frequents funerals. Like many young people, Harold is death-fixated. Seeking not freedom but oblivion, his urge is to withdraw ever inward. His primary form of self-expression is an inventive series of mock suicides by which he torments his cold and distant mother (Vivian Pickles). While desperate to fit in, Harold is simply too weird, too anomalous, to try. His mother does everything she can to get him to be like other boys; she buys him fast cars (he converts his jaguar into a compact hearse), gets him blind dates (he frightens them off with his macabre enactments), and enlists him in the army. But nothing works. As an alienated and introverted youth with unsuppressed hostility towards his mother, who enacts death rituals to express his frustration and misery, Harold is like a forerunner to Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Both characters might be seen as autistic in the wider sense of the word, yet the difference between them is striking. Harold, for all his strangeness, is tender-hearted, gentle, loving and utterly lovable. Even his morbidity is artistic and soulful. Kevin, on the other hand, is a monster whom we can only regard with fear and loathing.
Kevin isn’t a fully fleshed-out character but a more imaginatively and “sensitively” conceived Damian from the Omen films. And while he isn’t overtly presented as autistic (the diagnosis is dismissed by the doctor because Kevin doesn’t rock!), he does possess several obviously autistic traits. He’s non-verbal in the first few years, wears a nappy till about five, and refuses to engage in play. These are all characteristics common to autistic behavior. While a film like Harold and Maude takes viewers into the private world of the autist-misfit and reveals hidden riches, Kevin can only reinforce the idea, for parents already deeply disturbed by their children’s incomprehensible behaviors— that an autistic, or even a merely alienated, child is ipso facto hostile with a natural predisposition towards violence. Yet as a rule, autistic children and teenagers, like Harold, are not insensitive but over-sensitive. And though they do often have violent tantrums, they are more likely to direct their violence at themselves than at others. Victimization of others (bullying, etc.) is actually more characteristic of “ordinary” or “neurotypical” children. Ironically, while Harold and Maude is a romantic fantasy and We Need to Talk About Kevin aims at psychological realism, the former film adheres more closely to the facts.
The line between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, is one that movies have always blurred, with our full consent to suspend our disbelief. In the age of infotainment, the twilight zone in which we suspend disbelief and become innocent receptacles of fantasy narratives has extended all the way into reality, to the degree that many people no longer know the difference between accurate reportage and fabrication—or propaganda. If events such as the Sandy Hook shootings are being deliberately engineered, or at the very least dishonestly or irresponsibly reported, few people realize (or care) that they are partaking of, and thereby strengthening, a false perception of reality. Even with the best intentions, films like We Need to Talk About Kevin, since they lack the required understanding or awareness, serve to spread fantasy in place of truth. The result is that, as more and more people are seduced into adopting a false view of reality, a consensus is created. And the creation of a consensus—the forming of a group mind—invariably requires a sacrificial “other.”