Available now through February 10 with a virtual access pass to the Children’s Film Festival Seattle, “Mountain Boy” is an inspiring epic that will remind young viewers that differences can be celebrated and kindness is contagious. Based on the 2017 children’s book “The Boy Who Knew the Mountains” by Emirati-Australian author Michele Ziolkowski, the film, spoken in Arabic, is a wonderful introduction for middle-grade viewers to another culture and way of life, though the heart of the story and its characters are universal.
A Grand Epic
“There were many tales about him. How he is the boy who knew the mountains.”
The film opens with a female elder telling a story to a group of entranced young listeners, transporting them back to her own childhood. As a girl, Moza (Reem Al Messabi) and her friends play hide and seek. On one such occasion, Moza becomes lost in a deserted part of the hills near her home and is stranded when a terrifying storm sweeps through overnight. Scared and alone, a young boy named Suhail (Naser Al Messabi) appears and shepherds her back to the village. On their journey, he explains his differences: how loud noises and bright sounds upset him; how it “hurts” him to make eye contact with others; how he has a fixation with collecting beautiful stones, which he organizes by size, color and various other specifications; and how his superpower is to problem solve in a calm and rational manner.
Suhail lives in the hills all alone. His mother died, and his father does not understand his differences. He cast his son out to the Fujairah mountains. Life is not as complicated for Suhail as the adults around him make it. He understands nature and empathy. Encouraged by kind villagers, Suhail sets off on a journey across the United Arab Emirates to Abu Dhabi, where he hopes to reunite with his mother’s family. He travels alone with his Arabian Saluki canine companion named Barakah, the translation of which is “blessing,” but by the film’s end, he has found his family and reconciled with those who hurt him most.
Autistic, not Alien
Along the way, Suhail wins over village after village. He is blunt but honest, and his earnestness is endearing to both the characters in the film and the viewers in the audience. What is so beautiful about “Mountain Boy” is its heartfelt portrayal of a character with autism. Naser Al Messabi, who stars as Suhail, has autism in real life. His performance completely defines the film. His ability to make us fall in love with Suhail is a testament not only to his talent as an actor, but to the point that the film and its source material hope to make: people with autism are not defined by their diagnosis.
In each instant, Suhail proves that, not only is he capable of living and managing his travel, but he is helpful to those with whom he crosses paths. He notifies locals about contaminated water and leads them to a fresh-water dig site. The younger men he helps with the viable drinking water even defend him to older village men who claim he is possessed by evil spirits. He overcomes his fear of boats to go fishing for pearls. He becomes an asset in every situation.
On her author’s website, Ziolkowski, who named the lead after her own son who has autism, explains that her aim in creating this piece of fiction for young readers was to “highlight autism and focus more on the abilities of an individual with autism rather than the challenges.” The film does just that, sending its lead on an Odyssean journey across a foreign land where he encounters new creatures and people along the way. The film’s duo – boy and dog – have a surprising effect on those they encounter, leaving an indelible mark on all who give the boy a chance, opening their hearts to see past his differences to the beautiful soul that rests inside.
Who and where to watch:
When: Available online through February 10 with a virtual access pass to the Children’s Film Festival Seattle. The film can also be streamed for $10.
Recommended Age: 10+ There are subtitles throughout the film. Viewers with solid reading skills will have an easier time following the story and dialogue.
Runtime: 93 minutes
Difficult Concepts or Emotions: At its heart, “Mountain Boy” is terribly sad, though the kindness, generosity, and acceptance of strangers turn Suhail’s story around and give him an alternative to a life of solitude. Though the boy is abandoned by his father and accused of being possessed by evil spirits by others, which can be upsetting for some sensitive viewers, his optimistic resolve makes him a protagonist for whom we all can root. Suhail is eventually reunited with his father, who apologizes and recognizes his terrible actions. His ending is a beautiful and happy one.