Fragile X syndrome is a hereditary learning disability that causes a combination of learning, social, language, attentional, emotional, and behavioral problems. The name comes from a deficiency in the X chromosome – something that males have one of (XY) and females have two of (XX), meaning that it generally causes more problems in males. The condition is the genetic equivalent of behavioural autism, effecting 1 in 4000 males and 1 in 8000 females with varying severity. Mission to Lars is the story of one of those males.
Tom Spicer was diagnosed with Fragile X when he was in his teens and has led him to live in a care home called Bystock Court. His younger brother Will became a filmmaker and his older sister Kate became a journalist. When his siblings realized that they had begun to grow apart in their adulthood, they decided that they would give Tom an adventure. One that he had spoken about for as long as they could remember: to meet Lars.
Lars Ulrich is the drummer for Metallica – a heavy metal band that have an erratic relationship with their fans. For years Tom has loved Metallica and has collected albums and merchandise, having a particular interest in the drummer. He has also spent years telling people around him that he wants to ‘meet Lars’ – his language is limited but his passion clearly isn’t. So Will and Kate decide to use their media connections to try and miraculously meet the rock idol and simultaneously spend more time with Tom.
The film works beautifully both as a funny road-movie across America, as well as an educational insight into Tom’s condition. Before they leave Kate and Will must establish some rules that they collect from all of the people that look after Tom. These include keeping to his routines, making sure that he has enough sleep and regular meals, not causing conflict in front of him and raising stress levels and most of all, letting him be the big brother. Things do not go according to plan as they begin to realize how difficult it will be to convince Tom that this is something that he wants to do, and they have more than a few problems as they leave for America – but to explain them will ruin the charm of watching the family dynamics onscreen...
On the trip they talk to a leading expert on Fragile X who explains how Tom and others like him would be scared to go to loud, crowded places (such as a Metallica show!) as their hearing is vastly more sensitive. During this interview Will gives Tom the task of recording the sound, so he begins to wear headphones and eventually gains confidence clearly feeling more a part of the project due to his technical role.
There is a brilliant scene later on as the siblings arrive at one of the stadiums on the day of a gig and begin to battle through the crowd to get backstage. The scene is edited with a frenetic rhythm to emphasise how Tom feels in crowded situations – filmmaking as a classic empathy tool. At times you join in on the frustration at Tom’s stubbornness, but at other times you are forced to experience the world as close to how he sees it as possible. The film never patronises him but works to highlight the difference in his outlook.
The joy on Kate’s face as Tom begins to enjoy himself is heartbreaking to watch. They admit to being a typical ‘dysfunctional’ family albeit with an atypical central character, and onscreen Kate and Will are wonderful characters.
The project has a kind of unpretentious Britishness about it that gives it a great sense of humour. There are funny and touching scenes where Tom and Will stay in and attempt to do the laundry as Kate goes off and gets drunk whilst seeing the band. And although the film reinforces the stereotype that anything is possible in the US of A, I can't imagine there being the same acute charm and tenderness with an American family coming to Britain to meet Coldplay's drummer (or whatever the equivalent would be...)
Kate and Will never claim to be perfect, and often despair at how unhappy they seem to be making their brother by dragging him to Las Vegas and California, but the final moments of the film are so overwhelmingly joyous that the whole experience is clearly worthwhile. In fact, it is one of the most satisfying conclusions to a film that I have ever seen.
The project is clearly an incredibly personal attempt to try and strengthen the bond between two siblings and their cherished yet vulnerable brother and for that reason it is an utter joy and a privilege to be invited along with them.