Continuing the post-Reagan-era tendency of American movies to patronize and romanticize the mentally impaired, David S. Goyer’s ZigZag (Silver Nitrate, opens June 21) is an ambitiously naturalistic, albeit half-baked, drama about an abused, inner-city autistic teen (Sam Jones III) who has, like all film autistics, a magical knack for numbers. Kid-pulp screenwriter Goyer (Dark City, Blade I and II) manages some mature textures but his movie never surmounts its manipulative ideas. At least the plot (from the novel by Landon J. Napoleon) doesn’t play like a charity pamphlet: The eponymous dishwasher, in an effort to pay the rent his crack-dealer dad (Wesley Snipes) demands, steals nine Gs from his boss; after Dad grabs it all for himself, ZigZag and his volunteer Big Brother (John Leguizamo) try to retrieve it, with domino-like non-success.
Leguizamo, in his first major role as an ordinary person in years, is captivating (an easily botched scene in which he explains sex to ZigZag hits a bull’s-eye), and Jones, in his first film, never overdoes the handicap, limiting it to a speech impediment and a subtle head rock. Unfortunately, Goyer has his other actors (particularly hick bigot Oliver Platt) gnaw their dialogue like dogs on a roast bone. Eventually, the story stalls as cancer catches up with Leguizamo’s quick-talking mensch. First-person novels are notoriously uncooperative as sources for dramatic movies (the precious narration here sounds conspicuously un-autistic), and unlike fellow hack scripter-turned-indie startup Henry Bean, Goyer has no baggage of his own to unpack. Without the book’s motivating perspective, Goyer’s moral universe has the simplicity of a superhero comic.