“I really felt like people understand that dyslexia is a struggle, but they don’t understand the strengths, and that it isn’t an academic death sentence,” said James Redford, director of “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” which debuts Monday on HBO.
Redford’s father is the famous Robert, but more importantly in this context, his son, Dylan, is dyslexic.
Redford intended “The Big Picture” to be the film he wished he had seen when Dylan was first diagnosed. “It’s hard to know what the future holds, there’s so much anxiety. ... Well, it turns out that in the end there is a way through it.”
The film follows the happy-ending stories of a handful of unusually bright kids, including Dylan. They talk about their bouts of self-hatred and disdain for school and also about the moments when they realized that their limited reading skills were not character flaws.
One young girl said a school designed to teach dyslexics helped her “crack the code.” Others found outlets through music, sports or art. Dylan went on to get on the honor roll at Middlebury College; another to double major in history and philosophy at the University of Chicago; another to become a lawyer; another, who is also the father of a dyslexic daughter, to became an orthopedic surgeon.
Driving home the “it gets better” notion are interviews with some astonishingly successful dyslexics.
David Boies, Charles Schwab, Richard Branson, Gavin Newsom and Toby Cosgrove, president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, all talk about how they struggled in school.
Each of them took different academic paths — either doubling down to labor through assigned texts (Boies) or quitting early (Branson). They all, however, agree that dyslexia taught them life skills — the ability to speak without notes, quickly simplify concepts, persevere — that have come in far handier than speed reading.
“It forces you to rely on thinking. As you get out in the world, thinking is a lot more prized than learning,” Bois said.
The film rightly points out that many of the estimated 10 million children who suffer from dyslexia receive neither an accurate diagnosis nor effective support services. It calls for adding more time for testing and different approaches to teaching.
It lingers more on the point that if a kid can endure the school years, they might just excel later.
There’s testimony from experts such as Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, about how dyslexics are frequently highly intelligent and outside-the-box thinkers. She says they tend to be particularly adept at problem solving and prepared in excellent ways for life after school.
It’s certainly an uplifting documentary, but is it too rosy a picture for a condition that forces so many kids to struggle and too often falter after school too?
“This film represents the potential and the hope,” Redford said. “It’s done in a way to offer reassurance to the newly diagnosed and also to get the public to understand the capacities and the skills of dyslexics.”
At the same time, he said, he considers it a door to a larger conversation about how we might better recognize individuality in the classroom. If we to do that, he said, it would certainly benefit dyslexics and the rest of the kids, too.