Odd Kid Out, a documentary by Karen O'Donnell, is a window into the world of children living with ADHD — and the families who struggle to understand and help them. For the already indoctrinated, the film, though perhaps cathartic, doesn't offer solutions or a perspective they haven't heard before. But for a general audience unfamiliar with ADHD, it's a tender, illuminating introduction to the condition that's by turns dark and hopeful.
The three children whose lives we follow represent a wide range of ages and personalities, challenging the viewer away from a kneejerk opinion of ADHD: that is, one that labels and lumps together its sufferers. At four years old, Sarah is perhaps the saddest of the bunch, unable, due to her young age, to fully make sense of her ADHD and express her feelings.
As the camera trails her hiding below tables, withdrawn in corners, or crying or fighting with her peers, her wide-eyed, dazed stare is impenetrable. From it, we sense how lost she is. Likewise, her parents' exhaustion is obvious and the constant buzz of Sarah in the background as they speak allows us to empathize with them for a few moments as we, too, are distracted and wearied by her relentless energy. Their house is dark and dreary, with no natural light to soften the bleak situation; you are trapped in it with them.
Then there's 12-year-old Kail, the son of director, Karen O'Donnell, who has the words and sensitivity to convey the loneliness of ADHD. Other kids, he tell us, don't invite him over. He turns instead to his dog for companionship. His affinity with animals is channeled into therapy when his mother seeks out an authentic horse whisperer in Canada. As Kail gently leads and follows an erratic, untamed horse on a beautiful sunny day, we feel hopeful for him, despite the rather contrived comparison of ADHD to a wild, misunderstood animal.
But Kail's more positive experiences are tempered with his mother's solemn narrative: she tells us about his dependence on medication and her difficulties with the school system. When she mentions that police were called to the school on two occasions because of Kail, she never reveals what he actually did, a calculated omission that is a gesture of respect for her child's privacy and perhaps a message to us that these children, though challenged, are as fully human and deserving of courtesy as any others.
Daniel, the oldest of the three, is a fast-talking 14-year-old who lives with both ADHD and Tourette's Syndrome. He has a sharp sense of humor and possesses an irony about himself and his situation that is remarkable for his age. His father, an older no-nonsense man, takes a somewhat confrontational approach with Daniel which, given his son's obvious intelligence and high-energy, makes sense. Over reports from school that Daniel has been skipping classes, he sarcastically states "there's something wrong somewhere," to which Daniel replies "yeah tell me about it." In that answer is embedded the crux of Daniel's pain: he understands so keenly what his shortcomings are, but is at a genuine loss to fix them.
But "fixing" these children is far from Odd Kid Out's intended message. It implores families, instead, to change how they deal with them — to look beyond their symptoms and discover who they truly are inside. And that's precisely what each of the families in the film is struggling to do. As you listen to the kids' poignant confessions and observe their parents deal with both setbacks and victories, you can't help but hope they'll all find a little peace.
This article appears in the Winter issue of ADDitude.
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