The new Netflix film Amateur is breaking new ground with a main character who has dyscalculia. It’s the first time the math learning difference has been central to the plot of a movie. But how it’s portrayed in the film is raising questions.
Produced by former San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker, Amateur follows Terron, a high school athlete who dreams of playing professional basketball. Throughout the film, the 14-year-old is faced with many challenges. His family struggles with money. He must deal with shady recruiters. But his biggest challenge is dyscalculia.
Dyscalculia is a math learning difference. Some experts believe it’s as common as . Kids with dyscalculia, like Terron, have trouble understanding number-related concepts. This can affect them not just in school, but also in daily life.
Because film is a visual medium, Koo was challenged in how to represent Terron’s struggles with math concepts. Eventually, he decided to use his artistic license and portray dyscalculia in a visual way. In many scenes in Amateur, Terron sees numbers blend together and reverse. During basketball games, he sees distorted numbers on the shot clock.
Koo explained his approach to Newsweek: “There’s no real way to know what having dyscalculia is like if you don’t have it yourself, which became clear to me from talking to experts, researchers and educators,” he said. “So we came up with a numbers-jumbling visual effect that hopefully communicates the spirit of what it’s like to have dyscalculia.”
At least one expert is worried about that approach. Cognitive neuroscientist and Understood expert Daniel Ansari says Amateur could misrepresent what having dyscalculia is really like.
“I think it’s refreshing to see dyscalculia in a film,” Ansari says. “However, there’s really no evidence showing that dyscalculia is a visual challenge.”
It’s troubling, Ansari explains, because similar portrayals of dyslexia have caused misunderstandings. “Some think wrongly that people with dyslexia always see letters backward. And that has caused problems with diagnosis and treatment,” he notes. “I worry the same thing happening could happen here with dyscalculia.”
Despite this reservation, however, Ansari thinks the film gets other things right.
“We often see math brilliance as a central plot point in films. Take for example movies like A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting,” observes Ansari. “It’s important for awareness to also see math difficulties in film, as we do here.”
Ansari believes Amateur also offers a positive message for parents of kids with math issues. “The film shows Terron looking for work-arounds, solutions,” Ansari says. “He has to find ways to apply himself differently to succeed in math. Many kids in real life can do the same. That’s a powerful message that your child with dyscalculia can thrive.”
Amateur is streaming now on Netflix.
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Tara Drinks is an associate editor at Understood.