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Screenplay Review: FreeBird

Written by Michael Joseph McDonald, Freebird is a heartfelt animated short screenplay that offers a nuanced perspective of a man with Down’s Syndrome, and the complex life he leads.

Often stories featuring neurodiversity become trapped in the narratives of the neurotypical (i.e. the family and the caretakers and the “burden” they deal with). They may even present the neurodiverse character as child-like, unable to take care of themselves. Freebird feels refreshingly like John’s story and no one else’s. John likes a girl who celebrates him for who he is. He wants to make a move but he cannot figure out how. John’s mission is clear. The fact that he solves his own problems through teamwork, through celebrating his neurodiversity, makes him such a wonderful character to follow in a story. This kind of negotiation with the character feels reminiscent of Sam in Netflix’s Atypical.

The concept of the freebird and framework for the short is perfect. Opening with John as an adult draws the audience into his new representation. To reiterate -- it’s so compelling to see the often infantilized neurodiverse individual become the caretaker for his aging mother. In the opening image he feels like the hero of the story, and discovering the meaning of the message on the napkin provides a great structural framework for a satisfying ending.

It is heartbreaking - but realistic - to see parents who misunderstand and a bully who mistreats John. The fact that he can still be so full of love and pick himself up from a bullying, doubting environment is inspirational. He has a relatable transition into adulthood, pining after another girl, Miranda, over the years.

Miranda is such a loving, supporting character. It is possible she could be read as an ingénue in which her primary purpose serves to be the love interest. That works beautifully, but it may be even more compelling to offer her agency too. For instance, if she likes John perhaps she tries to make a move, but John chokes in the moment. That could make his situation more of a struggle.

I think a lot of people have felt confused in relationships in the early stages. They may constantly wonder or even worry what the other person may be thinking about them.

The settings and expressions are descriptive and visual. It’s easy to picture, which is great for the animated genre. Having no dialogue also works great except for the moment where a fight is supposed to take place between the married couple. In the scene where the husband is shouting that he has “dreams” and “a life to live” - those moments should be put into dialogue for clarity.

Overall, this piece is strong with complex characterization and a compelling message at its core.

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