Los Angeles Times

The Tic Code


Friday August 4, 2000

     "The Tic Code" is one of the toughest kinds of movies to make--thoseintended to enlighten the public about an often misunderstood physical affliction.
     The trick, of course, is to get the message across through an involving drama. This film, which deals with the neurological disorder Tourette's syndrome, starts out self-consciously but gets better as it goes along, winding up as affecting as it is illuminating.
     Christopher George Marquette's Miles is an adolescent jazz piano prodigy, a personable boy living with his divorced mother Laura (Polly Draper) in a modest Greenwich Village apartment. She supports them working as a seamstress--a profession that's a tad too heart-tugging, summoning images of early silent melodrama.
     They live near the Village Vanguard, where Miles hangs out much of the time and where he meets Tyrone (Gregory Hines), a saxophonist with whom he bonds, through their passion for jazz and their disorder. Tyrone has a milder form of Tourette's than does Miles, who is given to irregular and involuntary eye blinks, shakes, twists and sometimes sounds. Even so, his is not an extreme case, and for both Miles and Tyrone their syndrome retreats when they are performing.
     Miles has a staunch, protective friend in a neighbor boy and classmate, Todd (Desmond Robertson), but he is nevertheless targeted by a bully, who is amusingly defused by Tyrone in a sequence that gives the film its name. (Miles must also cope with his well-meaning but rigid music teacher, played in uptight fashion by Carol Kane.)
     Laura is a conscientious mother, loving but not smotheringly protective. Her biggest challenge is in trying to convince Miles that her ex-husband, a hugely successful movie composer (James McCaffery), has not left them because of his son's Tourette's.
     There may be other factors in the couple's breakup, but clearly the father neglects the son, sees him rarely and acts like a complete jerk when he does show up.
     The film begins to kick in when an understandable attraction develops between Tyrone and Laura, but complications swiftly arise. Laura rightly believes that talking freely about Tourette's and the challenges it presents is the best way for Miles to keep it in proportion; Miles certainly has lots going for him in regard to his personality, intellect and talent.
     The trouble is that Tyrone deals with his Tourette's by refusing to talk about it. He sees himself as a weirdo and believes that the sooner Miles accepts that he is one, too, the better off he will be. This outrages Laura, which does no good for her and Tyrone's burgeoning romance.
     "The Tic Code" swiftly becomes complex and emotion-charged, increasing its credibility and involvement and revealing that Laura is after all only human and can give way to the strain of raising a Tourette's child.
     There are some stabs at humor that seem all too obviously contrived to offset the film's seriousness--the moments that are genuinely funny grow out of everyday life--but by and large "The Tic Code," well directed by Gary Winick, rings true.
     This is not surprising, for Draper, who also wrote the script, is married to jazz recording artist Michael Wolff--it is his music, played by Alex Foster, you are hearing when Tyrone plays his sax--and Wolff suffers from a mild form of Tourette's. Tyrone and Miles' relationship is based on that of Wolff and his young cousin, an instance of an older person learning to cope with a condition from a younger person.
     Draper and young Marquette are persuasive, but it is Hines' star charisma and his sensitively nuanced portrayal that makes the film come alive and glow.
     It took Draper five years to get her handsomely produced film made, and for her husband, best known for his stint as bandleader on "The Arsenio Hall Show," it marked the first time he ever talked about Tourette's with another person with the syndrome. "The Tic Code" is a worthy reward for her efforts.

The Tic Code, 2000. R, for language. An Avalanche Releasing presentation. Director Gary Winick. Producers Polly Draper, Michael Wolff, Karen Tangora. Screenplay Draper. Cinematographer Wolfgang Held. Editor Bill Pankow. Music Michael Wolff. Production designer Rick Butler. Set decorator Catherine Pierson. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. Christopher George Marquette as Miles. Polly Draper as Laura. Gregory Hines as Tyrone. Desmond Robertson as Todd.

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