What makes one “human”? Can one be human but not Homo sapiens? Until about 30,000 years ago, there were other species of human that in time died out. One of those was Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals. If a Neanderthal could be born today, how would it differ from modern humans? Would he truly be human? Would he survive? Those questions play out in Tim Disney’s film, William. But it treats the questions as a family matter.
A pair of academics, paleontologist Dr. Julian Reed (Waleed Zuaiter) and reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Barbara Sullivan (Maria Dizzia), make plans to clone a Neanderthal from remains that happen to be at their university. The university forbids it, but they proceed with Dr. Sullivan carrying the child herself. Drs. Reed and Sullivan marry and provide a family for the child they name William. When news gets out, the university is in a bind, because the prestige this brings makes them accept what has happened and overlook the ethical issues.
William (Callum Airlie for the child William, and Will Brittain as the adult) grows up as an intelligent boy, but he is a bit stronger than normal, and he seems incapable of appreciating humor or accepting metaphor as useful. When Dr. Reed wants to continue studying William, Dr. Sullivan’s maternal feelings lead her to take the boy to one of the islands off Washington state for him to continue schooling as much as a normal child as possible.
When high school comes to an end, William opts to return to his father and enroll in the university. But soon his “otherness” begins to weigh on him. As much like other people as he may be, he knows he’ll never be more to most people than an oddity at best. He feels as though he has nowhere he truly fits in.
There are various directions the film could have gone, including focusing on the science or the ethics of such a project, or the nature/nurture aspects. Instead, the director chose to make this a personal story focusing on William, perhaps the ultimate outsider who yearns to belong. But the focus is not really on what makes him different, but rather on how similar he is to all the people around him.
By making William’s story a family drama, we see this as a familiar story: a single mother, a father who pushes William to fit his plans for him, a young man seeking love and friendship, but having to overcome people’s perceptions of who he is—and his own perception of himself.
Because William is actually a different species from the rest of us, his otherness is more than just the matters of race or orientation or culture that so divide us as a society. But within this story, other than a forehead ridge and some minor cognitive variations, William is very much like everyone else we meet. By setting William’s story in a family setting, we are reminded of the concept of the human family. The question is does William belong to our family?