Movie Review: The Story of Luke
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Writer-director Alonso Mayo’s feature debut takes a fictionalized approach to a subject with which he is very familiar. The native Peruvian, who split his childhood between South America and Kansas, made a 44-minute short film in 2009 that documented the lives of several South Americans of various ages with developmental challenges. The movie was informed by Mayo’s time at the Centro Ann Sullivan del Perú, an educational center in Lima founded by his mother that serves kids and adults with autism, Down syndrome and other conditions.
“The Story of Luke,” co-produced by Austinites Steve and Ellen LeBlanc, examines a similar narrative through the journey of the titular character (Lou Taylor Pucci), a gentle 25-year-old with autism trying to build a life for himself after losing his pillars of support. His grandmother has recently die, and with his grandfather in an elder care facility, Luke falls under the care of his well-intentioned but overwhelmed uncle Paul (Cary Elwes) and his short-tempered and insensitive aunt Cindy (Kristin Bauer).
We don’t have much indication of Luke’s daily life preceding his grandmother Maggie’s death, but it is clear that he did little beyond the walls of the house. He spent most of his time watching TV with his grandmother and helping her in the kitchen. With his anchor and support gone, Luke finds direction from his mentally declining grandfather, who implores his grandson to, “Get a job. Find a girl. Live your own life. Be a man.”
Feeling trapped inside the cold, modern house of his aunt and uncle, and prompted by his headstrong teen cousin, Luke begins to search of a job. He meets the forthright Maria (Sabryn Rock), a receptionist at a center that helps place developmentally challenged adults in jobs. Luke naturally stumbles in his initial efforts at flirtations, and Maria informs the handsome but confused young man that she only dates guys with jobs.
Inspired by the possibility of a date, Luke finds a job working as an office assistant under the tutelage of Zack (Seth Green), a manic misanthrope who has almost as much trouble relating to society as Luke. Zack seethes and snarls at Luke for a time before relaxing into the role of mentor. The sarcastic, tech-savvy Zack sees in Luke a kindred spirit.
Zach builds a computer program to help teach Luke how to understand social and interpersonal clues, a date with Maria always lingering as the carrot. Undaunted by cruel co-workers and an indifferent aunt, Luke tries to forge a sense of identity and build confidence at work and in his new romantic ventures. As he discovers how to use muscles he never knew he had, Luke begins to imagine a life rich with possibility and one strengthened by the ability to communicate with a world around him that has always felt so foreign.
Pucci captures the tentativeness and confusion that can come with a condition like autism. Luke feels trapped inside a glass box. He can see the outside world, but he has trouble touching it, interacting with it and understanding it. Pucci’s performance may ring true to those familiar with the autistic, but his breathy, sing-song pattern of speech feels extremely affected, and its monotony wears thin fast.
People thrust into Luke’s aunt and uncle’s position likely can feel deeply challenged with the responsibility of caring for another person, a frustration exacerbated by problematic communication, but Elwes and Bauer make for comically overwhelmed characters. The outsized nature of their insensitivities is meant to reinforce the pain and humiliation from Luke’s perspective, but it makes for a movie with an uneven tone.
The story of an adult living with autism and trying to come-of-age in a harsh world can make for maudlin storytelling, so it is refreshing to see Mayo inject humor into “The Story of Luke,” as we see how the character who is “disabled” is actually more whole than those around him. But the pithy way with which derision and dismissiveness are dealt with feels unnatural, as do several rushed parts of the story that come together in a tidy way to wrap up the narrative.
“The Story of Luke” sheds light on the transformative and personal trials and triumphs of a segment of our society that too often goes overlooked, but the tone — at once screwball and scathing — and a forced and unbelievable character arc make for pat storytelling, regardless of the amount of heart invested.