Eloquently attesting to the transformative power of theater, “Autism: The Musical,” an upbeat docu about putting on a musical for, with and by autistic children, proves as riveting as it is revelatory. With diagnosed cases of the disease rapidly escalating in America throughout the last decade, this docu’s exploration of alternative methods of treatment seems opportune, not to mention downright joyous at times. Moving, dramatic, therapeutic and unburdened by reliance on talking heads, uplifting “Musical” could claim a real shot at limited arthouse distribution before it finds a home on the small screen.
Like Scott Kennedy’s “OT: Our Town,” about a socially disadvantaged group of kids mounting an amateur theatrical production against all odds, Tricia Regan’s film skillfully weaves the lives of its subjects around progressive stages of rehearsals over a period of six months — creating an organic arc that allows for a tremendous degree of information to be dispensed within the evolving storyline.
Each time the camera returns to a new run-through, the viewer has been granted increased familiarity and greater identification with the kids and their parents. As the film concerns a process of socialization whereby isolated figures onstage learn to relate to one another, so the film’s unfolding structure effects a process of socialization for the audience.
Pic has virtually no exposition per se. It is the parents who serve as the conduits to their children and, in amazingly candid one-on-ones with helmer-lenser Regan, lay bare the difficulties and rewards of dealing with an autistic child. The parents also provide a startling amount of camcorder footage that illustrates their testimony, as homemovies show their offspring in seemingly normal infancy before gradually exhibiting more erratic behavior. Even the film’s central figure, innovative educator and children’s acting coach Elaine Hall, is herself the mother of an autistic child who appears in the play-within-the-film.
As the docu makes blindingly clear, autism is rightly understood as an umbrella term that encompasses an astonishing range of symptoms; not only is each child very different, but so is his or her disease. Supposedly normal ways of evaluating subjects’ individual capacities can quickly become invalid. In one of the pic’s most surprising moments, Elaine’s son Neal, a severely autistic kid who does not speak, manages to focus long enough to utilize a keyboarded voicebox, unexpectedly revealing an almost sardonic control of language.
Regan primarily focuses on five children and their parents, and not the least of the pic’s accomplishments is that all five kids’ one-of-a-kind quirks and temperaments are fully experienced without excessive reference to medical terminology or anything extrinsic. By the time it’s revealed that one of the fathers is Stephen Stills, the information seems entirely secondary to his son’s unique personality and encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. With nary a throbbing violin (though one boy plays the cello), pic manifests each child’s value, minimizing neither their undoubted potential nor their very real problems.
Docu’s feeling of intimacy is greatly enhanced by Regan’s ability to do her own lensing and by one particular girl’s smiling, out-of-the-corner-of-her-eye complicity with the camera.