“Ezra”, which premiered on Feb. 11 at the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, stands out from other films in competition for its cast of recognizable names. Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson and, of course, Robert De Niro draw attention to the bitter-sweet story about the relationship between an autistic boy and his father struggling to help him.

After circumstances force comedian Max (Cannavale) to agree to transfer his son Ezra (William Fitzgerald) to a special needs school, he ignores the restraining order and decides to kidnap the boy from his ex-wife’s house. Together, they travel from New York to Los Angeles, where Max is invited to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

The plot centers on the tragedy of Max, who refuses to accept his son’s diagnosis. He insists that Ezra is an ordinary boy, just like everyone else. Max, traumatized by the fact that his mother abandoned him as a child, tries to prove to his son that he will always be there for him, but only makes things worse for both of them. Throughout the film, Max makes a series of questionable decisions that reveal his immaturity and lack of self-control. This journey makes him question his beliefs, come to terms with himself and become a better father.

Cannavale’s brilliant acting sets the tone for the entire film. As a comedian, Max is a very funny and appealing character. However, the character’s imperfections are also evident. His tragic side and scenes of nervous breakdowns add another layer to the nuanced performance. For Cannavale, who is known for his supporting roles, this is his first big leading role, and it may as well be one of the best in his career.

Fitzgerald’s performance is also noteworthy. Finding child actors is always a challenge for casting directors, and it was important to the filmmakers to accurately portray a neurodivergent child. Producer Jon Kilik said they contacted special schools for children with autism and held auditions. Fitzgerald was their final choice due to his chemistry with Cannavale, which was crucial to the film. The father-son relationship feels realistic, and therefore becomes the heart of the film.

Among the supporting actors, Byrne and De Niro stand out as Max’s ex-wife (Ezra’s mother) and father. Despite the fact that Byrne’s character has to act as the antagonist at certain points in the story, it is impossible to feel any negative emotions towards her. She charms the audience from the very first scenes. The most striking scene takes place at the beginning of the film, when she and her son caress each other’s earlobes, because Ezra does not tolerate hugs. This scene is unique in its composition and mesmerizes with its poignancy, immersing the viewer in the relationship between the characters. 

De Niro’s role as Max’s father Stan is much more emotionally restrained. For most of the film, he serves a comedic function, making ironic remarks from time to time. However, towards the end, in the climactic dialogue scene with his son, he shows a hint of the feelings he has been holding back. That alone is enough to make you care about this character.

The film maintains a tragicomic tone. Like the protagonist, it hides the drama behind a humorous narrative style. The downside of this style is that it prevents the viewer from fully feeling the drama of the situation. It seems as if the creators were afraid to embrace the seriousness of the problems they touched on, because it would hurt the comedic elements of the story. However, even though this tone makes the movie more lighthearted, it doesn’t prevent it from conveying an important message about the struggles of neurodivergent children and the responsibilities that come with parenting them. 

“Ezra” refrains from any innovative storytelling. The cinematography is impressive, capturing the beauty of the landscapes that accompany the characters on their journey. However, it is not enough to make the film stand out in a technical sense. The musical choices are also generic, with the exception of the final credits song. The film is aware of the fact that the story is its key element, and has no intention to distract the audience from it.

Overall, “Ezra” is a good film. It’s touching, sweet and most importantly, raises important questions about how autistic children should interact with society and what it means to be a parent of such a kid. While the movie does not fully realize its potential to be heartwrenching, it still makes for an entertaining and poignant watch.

“Ezra” doesn’t aspire to be a masterpiece, but it will warm your heart, make you smile and, when the credits roll, it will invite you to reflect.