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Dear John - Movie Review

By Guest Writer Nils Skudra

I recently had the opportunity to watch Dear John, a heartwarming 2010 film based on Nicholas

Sparks’ novel about two young people whose summer romance is challenged by the title character’s

prolonged military service overseas. While this film is not specifically about autism, I felt that it would be

a worthwhile piece for review since two of its supporting characters are on the autism spectrum, and

the filmmakers took a unique approach in choosing a young actor who has autism in real life for one of

these roles. Considering the growing trend for casting actors with disabilities in the roles of disabled

protagonists, this film undoubtedly took an unprecedented step at the time of its release, which can

hopefully serve as a model for the future casting of neurodiverse actors in the roles of neurodiverse


The film opens by introducing John Tyree (Channing Tatum), a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army

Special Forces who is deployed in Afghanistan in 2003. Wounded in action, he reminisces about his

childhood trip to the U.S. Mint, comparing himself to a coin as a solder in the military: “I was minted in

the year 1980. I've been punched from sheet metal. I've been stamped and cleaned. My edges have

been rimmed and beveled. But now I have two small holes in me. I'm no longer in perfect condition.”

He subsequently remarks that the last thing he thought about before blacking out was “you,” referring to the correspondent to whom his letter is addressed. The film then flashes back to the spring of 2001, when John is on leave in Charleston, South Carolina. While strolling along the beach, he meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on spring break who is engaged in building homes for Habitat for Humanity. She invites him to a bonfire, where he meets her neighbor Tim (Henry Thomas) and his son Alan (Braeden Reed), who displays a series of visible autistic traits, including a tendency to repeat certain statements and difficulty with eye contact. Savannah reveals that she has helped Tim with taking care of Alan since she was a teenager and that this experience has profoundly influenced her career aspirations, as she seeks to establish a therapeutic horseback riding center for children with special needs. Although John does not show much understanding of autism at this point, he gets along well with Alan, and he soon falls in love with Savannah after going on several dates.

John subsequently introduces Savannah to his father Bill (Richard Jenkins), an eccentric loner

who displays a significant fixation on his coin collection, together with an immense knowledge of the

history behind certain coins. He also exhibits difficulties with eye contact and a tendency to have a

different meal scheduled for certain nights, which John is somewhat offput by. From her observations of

Bill’s behavior, Savannah deduces that he might have Asperger’s Syndrome, like Alan, but this leads to a

heated argument between her and John. Upon hearing her inference about the possible reason behind

his father’s unique traits, John remarks, “I’ve had to put up with him my whole life. I know my father’s

weird, but he’s not a retard.” John’s use of this epithet upsets Savannah, who replies, “Alan is autistic,

not retarded.” Nevertheless, John angrily accuses her of secretly studying him and Bill all this time,

which leads to a brief period of estrangement between the two of them.

After Savannah and John reconcile, they agree to continue their relationship via letters,

promising to be transparent with each other. Their plans for starting a life together are interrupted,

however, by the September 11 attacks, which prompt John to request an extension of his overseas

deployment without consulting Savannah. When she learns about this at a family party, she is deeply

distressed, but John promises that he will continue corresponding with her. As his service in Afghanistan

turns from months into years, Savannah finds it difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship with

John, and she begins spending more time with Tim and Alan, which further strengthens her desire to

work with autistic children. Ultimately, this leads her to write a letter to John two years later,

announcing that she’s decided to end their relationship since she is engaged to someone else. John is

heartbroken by this news, shortly after which he receives his combat wound featured in the film’s


Upon recovering and returning home four years later, John discovers that Savannah has married

Tim and given up her plans of building a riding camp for autistic children due to Tim’s struggle with

Lymphoma. During their hospital visit, Tim indicates that Savannah still loves John, but their subsequent

argument that night prevents them from resolving their feelings and renewing their relationship. After

John leaves, he decides to sell his father’s coin collection (except for the mule coin that his father

especially cherished), with the secret purpose of raising money for Tim’s cancer treatment, and then

returns to the military. In her final letter to John, Savannah reveals that Tim has died after two months

of treatment, followed by a heartfelt confession: “The problem with time, I've learned, whether it's those first two weeks I got to spend with you, or the final two months I got to spend with him, eventually time always runs out. I have no idea where you are out there in the world, John. But I understand that I lost the right to know these things long ago.

No matter how many years go by, I know one thing to be as true as ever was - I'll see you soon then.”The film thus ends on a sorrowful but hopeful note, leaving open the possibility of John and

Savannah getting back together.

Dear John is a compelling and heartwarming drama that features astute performances by the

cast. Tatum and Seyfried bring a strong chemistry to their moments together on-screen, and Jenkins

delivers a convincing portrayal of John’s father as an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. Most

intriguing of all, however, is the filmmakers’ casting of Braeden Reed, a real-life child actor with autism,

in the role of Alan since he brings a unique authenticity and sensitivity to his performance. In one of the

film’s special features, the filmmakers elaborate upon their experience working with Braeden as an

autistic actor, pointing out that while other neurotypical actors must learn how to display the

mannerisms of characters with autism, Braeden did not require much instruction in this regard since he

brought his genuine self to the role. In addition, they discuss how they needed to be very specific with

him in giving certain directions since autistic individuals do not think in abstract terms, such as “Be back

in a while,” but rather in highly definite terms, such as “Be back in five minutes.”

Considering the widespread trend in Hollywood of casting neurotypical actors in the roles of autistic protagonists, it is highly significant that a young actor with autism was selected for the role of Alan and that the filmmakers worked with him in a very sensitive and empathetic manner. Given that there is now a growing demand for greater representation of characters with disabilities by actors with disabilities,

which some filmmakers have pursued in productions such as Peanut Butter Falcon and Keep the Change, Dear John provides an inspiring model for casting neurodivergent actors and working with them sensitively and respectfully, which future filmmakers will hopefully emulate.

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