I’ve seen dozens of movies hundreds of times and hundreds of movies dozens of times. I was born in the ‘70s and grew up in the ‘80s, when cable TV came into its own and rented VHS tapes were all anyone without a car did on Friday nights. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, RoboCop, Star Trek II — and only II — Aliens, Blazing Saddles, Ghostbusters. I could quote vast swaths of those films, as could all of my friends, as if knowing all the dialogue to Stripes would unlock the secrets of the universe. I was a nerd before nerds were cool and I didn’t care: Movies were part of who I was, so I watched them more than I did anything. Yes, anything.
So if you’d have told 18-year-old me that the film he’d have seen more than any other film in the world would be Pixar’s 2003 film Finding Nemo, he’d have said you’ve lost your damned mind.
Of course, that 18-year-old kid would not have known that he would one day have a child with autism.
When starting a family was in the cards, I did what any well-intentioned nerd would do: I started building a library of the things I wanted to show this kid, whomever it would be. The original Star Wars trilogy, of course. The Wizard of Oz. As many classic Disney cartoons as I could get my hands on. Singin’ in the Rain. All of the Miyazaki. Looney Tunes. Batman: The Animated Series. The Universal Monsters. Godzllla. Donner’s Superman. Planet of the Apes. The Muppet Show.
My very first memory is of seeing Star Wars when I was seven years old — Princess Leia’s blockade runner fleeing over my head from Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer. So, naturally, I spent years trying to decide when was the right time to expose the kid-to-be to the defining film of my generation, hoping that it would be her or his defining film as well. (It was a her.)
When she was a toddler, we watched the things you watch with kids, much as it occasionally pained me. For every episode of Sesame Street, there were three episodes of Dora the Explorer or The Wonder Pets or Little Einsteins. Thanks to our status as early DVR adopters, we could cue up saved episodes of The Wiggles and The Backyardigans on demand. I know whole seasons of those shows by heart.
At 18 months, she began to exhibit what the ladies in day care referred to as “red flags.” She never really played with the other kids. She was happy to watch the lid on the garbage swing and swing and swing. Her language development wasn’t hitting all the benchmarks it should’ve. After a year of evaluations and testing, we got the diagnosis: She fell “on the spectrum.”
For every family who gets news like that, the experience is both different and the same, because no child — and how the disorder manifests — is the same. There is rage. There is blame. There are tears. But after all of that, there is the recalibration of expectations. When you have a child, the world is nothing but possibility. Everything is on the table. And when that child is diagnosed with something for which there is no cure and thanks to which typical development will be challenging at best and impossible at worst, you start taking things off that table.
As I said, for each kid, autism presents differently. For mine, it was as if her mind was a storm of competing thoughts and emotions, always raging. She could never focus on too much for too long. But her baseline emotion was happiness, and for that we were grateful.
But this vast library of cinema that I’d built — perhaps selfishly, like some Ark of my Personality — would be wasted on her. The things she liked were short, those same kiddie shows she’d watched as a toddler were all she wanted, no matter what I put on the screen.
Except for Pixar’s Finding Nemo.
I have given years worth of thought as to why directors Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s underwater odyssey — about a widower clown fish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) who has to scour the ocean to find his kidnapped son Nemo (Alexander Gould) with no one by his side but the amnesiac Dory (Ellen Degeneres) — is the only movie to this day that my daughter will sit through, from beginning to end. I have theories, but no answers.
The color palette is incredibly calming; all blues and pinks and purples. Even the sound design is warm — Finding Nemo is a film that almost forms a cocoon around the viewer. My daughter’s favorite thing in the world to do is to swim, so maybe all the water is evocative of better days. Maybe she just likes Degeneres’ voice.
We tried putting on any other, every other animated film to see if she’d sit through them. Every Pixar movie. Every underwater movie. No dice.
I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’ve seen Finding Nemo at least 300 times in the eight years since she first saw it, and that’s a conservative figure. And my relationship to Nemo has…evolved.
First, it was a perfectly charming computer-animated movie. The themes were strong, there was humor where there needed to be to undercut the more serious beats. There was parenticide, because it’s a Disney flick, and you can count the number of intact nuclear families on one hand. Then I started to notice some of the craft: Pixar could, if they wanted to, farm themselves out as a digital effects house for live-action films. They are that good — there’s a sequence in an abandoned submarine that is as tactile as anything in a Marvel Studios flick (though that could be damning with faint praise).
After the 30th or 40th viewing, I started to loathe Finding Nemo the way you loathe anything you’re forced to do over and over and over again with no variation. And it wasn’t really the that I hated the film, it was the reason why I kept having to watch the film I hated. I simply transferred that hate, I see that now. But every time I saw that fucking desk lamp hop onto the screen to crush a ball, I knew what was coming and why it was coming.
That lasted for a while. Until it didn’t. Until I reached a sort of zen bargain with Finding Nemo. I would endure it, if it began to show me things I’d missed.
Nemo is like a unicorn of children’s storytelling in that it’s a film about a dad. And not a dad who needed to die so that the son could become a man. It’s a story about a father who was so afraid to expose his kid to the realities of the world — realities that he himself has been hiding from — that he drove him away. And in the process of finding his son, he has to learn to let him go. (It’s also a story about prison: deciding whether to accept a good life in the yard or risk everything to breathe fresh water.)
If I hadn’t been forced to watch Finding Nemo as much as I have, I might’ve just dismissed it as a pleasant distraction. Instead, it has revealed itself as a work of genius.
And for that, I am thankful. Not just because Pixar has made something that makes my baby girl happy, but because, well…there are a thousand more far inferior films I could have to watch hundreds of times. At least fate picked her a good one.
She doesn’t watch Finding Nemo quite as much as she used to: We’ve since moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles and a house with a pool. So the water she loves is a walk across a hot patio away. And she now has an old iPhone with her favorite things loaded into it, so she doesn’t need to monopolize my shiny flatscreen.
But whenever she’s upset, whenever she needs to be consoled and find a happy place, she walks up, lip quivering, and asks for her “Nemo Phone.”
And we give it to her.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. His other child is not autistic but he couldn’t give two shits about Star Wars.