It would have been quite something if the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences documentary branch had chosen Autism: The Musical as one of the nominated five for Documentary Feature. Though the first Autism Awareness Day is April 2 and, in many respects, autism awareness is higher than ever, AMPAS made yet another error when they ignored this honest, unique look at the condition that is affecting more and more children every day.
Luckily, Autism: The Musical is getting a fancy rollout on HBO this week. If you missed it during its qualifying run, you will have many more opportunities to see it in the weeks ahead.
Autism: The Musical is a film made by Tricia Regan, who produced, directed, and served as cinematographer. It follows five families involved in the Miracle Project, a theater group for children with autism, as they prepare a musical performance at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.
As we meet each of the children and their struggling, devoted parents, it becomes suddenly clear that there really are heroes in our midst. These parents, especially the mothers, have had to fight every day of their lives for the rights of their children. Forget the looks from strangers at grocery stores; they have to deal with getting their child a proper education, protecting them from bullies, and finally, dealing with unexpected and sometimes uncontrollable tantrums.
The film follows five families with children who are on the autism spectrum. One of the perplexing things about the condition is that the characteristics widely vary, and the word “autistic” is the catch-all for these similar but very different kids. Some kids in the film do not speak at all, others are extremely verbal.
The film charts the history of each family, the marriages that failed, the marriages that are still hanging on by a thread, the home movies before the diagnosis, what it was like to get the diagnosis, how difficult it is to get services in the first place, or how to get people to listen. They are all exhausted by it all. They are all protective and loving of their kids.
The Miracle Project uses theater games, dancing, singing, and musical performance to reach inside the kids and bring the parts of them that are locked away back out. It is no easy task, though some of them seem like they were born to perform. It is a lot like herding cats and really drives home the point that autism is a spectrum and no two are alike.
As the performance date approaches, the parents are getting nervous. By this time, we know what is at stake. This is going to be a test to see how well the Miracle Project, run by the energetic Elaine Hall, or “Coach E,” works. There is no doubt that it works beautifully.
Autism: The Musical does back off the biggest problem facing families dealing with autism: that these children are not yet understood and thus, they are continually getting the short shrift and no one seems to know what to do with them. What people need to see is who children with autism really are, what they can do, how smart they are – this film does that and in the process gently nudges the collective consciousness.
One of the more powerful moments in the film is when Hall’s own son Neal types out a message for his very busy mom. He has not spoken a word throughout the film but he types out, “Mom, I’m going to put you on the spot. You need to start listening.” The non-verbal kids have so much to say, but who is going to take the time to listen to them? Here is one film that gives us that privilege.