Directed by Tim Disney
Written by Tim Disney & J.T. Allen
Produced by Amar Balaggan, Jonathan DuBois, Peter Newman
Executive Producer Bill Haney
Unrated, 100 minutes
Tribeca Film Festival 2019
William tells the story of a Neanderthal living in modern times. What immediately sounds like a remake of Encino Man, turns out to be anything but.
The movie centers on two scientists, Julian Reed (Waleed Zuiter) and Barbara Sullivan (Maria Dizzia) studying a Neanderthal bog mummy. A bog mummy is the result of a human falling into oxygen depleted swamp where it is pristinely preserved. There are several in museums around the world, although none old enough to have lived concurrently with Neanderthals.
Because scientific study only reveals so much, the two scientists decide they want to attempt to clone the mummy. After a lot of glossing over of ethics, science and morality, the scientists are married and expecting to deliver the artificially inseminated clone.
William (Callum Airlie at 10 and Will Brittain for the remainder of the film) is born and immediately tensions rise between the two parents. They’re each interested in studying this Neanderthal child – Julian, through the use of cognitive experiments in a controlled lab environment, while Barbara sees the child behind the heavy brow and wants to give William a real life and opportunity to be a real child.
What makes William’s story compelling is watching him struggle. One scientific theory regarding Neanderthal intelligence is that they leaned towards the literal, lacking metaphorical thought. Situations where he is asked to pretend, such as a school play, confuse him. He struggles understanding jokes. He fails standardized tests, because while he is intelligent enough to understand the answer the test is seeking, it feels false to him. He is also bullied. What child, looking so different from everyone else, wouldn’t immediately be the target of childish aggression? Unfortunately for both William and the bully, he is a Neanderthal, and significantly stronger than modern humans.
The portrait painted by this movie isn’t a science lesson, but one of a person possessing traits so foreign and yet so completely human that they stand out and seem normal at the same time. When William finally sees the bog mummy that he was cloned from, his non-metaphorical mind sees what we as modern humans fail to see. He isn’t just a clone of the Neanderthal on the slab, he is that body. He asks the scientist Dr. Godwin Thomas (Beth Grant) credited with finding the mummy, “Where did you find me?”
William tells a touching story with a tragic end, and kudos to Filmmaker Tim Disney (yes, those Disneys) who co-wrote with J.T. Allen for not trying to pretend that this would all work out just fine and we’d all go out for ice cream.
Stephen Bettles, a veteran creature and effects man does a well-balanced job of giving us a young man who is clearly of another time and place, while not going full Encino man.
What plays out is an enjoyable story that asks timely questions about identity and the role science may play in shaping it. The aforementioned glossing and some stereotypes in the main characters keep it from rising from good to great.
William is a fish out of water, he is the fearful stranger, the distant past come alive. We may never truly know how a Neanderthal would take to being born in our modern world, but William seems at times to be more human than anyone he encounters.