Coping alongside the parents of children with autism
Watching the families at the center of Autism: The Musical live with the hands life dealt them is like looking at what could have been, and even more upsetting, what could be, as there's no real way of knowing what path a child's development will take. Each of the children the film focuses on arrived at their diagnosis of autism in a different way, and each has a distinctly different background, underlining just how universal the syndrome is.
Of course, the title of the film is Autism: The Musical, so it's not so much a look at autism, but a documentary about The Miracle Project, a Los Angeles theater program that works with special needs children. As one can tell from any number of great documentaries, including the somewhat similar, but more cinema-friendly Yellow Brick Road, while the film may be about a certain subject, in this case the Miracle Project, the real topic of the movie is much more intimate, namely how families cope with difficulty and the effect of a special needs child on his or her parents.
The film mainly follows five children from the project, who fall along the spectrum of autism, from Neal, the son of the group's leader, who is unable to say much of anything, to breakout-star Wyatt, who won't stop talking. Listening to them speak with such innocence, whether it's Lexi's tendency to repeat what's said to her, Adam's outbursts or Henry's encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs, is sometimes charming and sometimes crushing, or both, like when Wyatt talks about how he's treated by others. It's not always obvious that there's something off about these kids, a problem that affects society's understanding of autism, so the power of their accomplishments can be somewhat diminished, but when you are taken inside their world, you can see just how big a challenge they face.
Unfortunately, the challenge facing their parents, which include a former Playboy playmate, a rock star and a TV executive, can be even more daunting. From struggling with taking care for their kids, to worrying about their futures to trying to find time for their spouses, these people are often trapped in their lives, and the filmmakers watch as at least one relationship crumbles under the pressure and one parent snaps. Following the parents home lent the film a drama it would have otherwise lacked.
The filmmakers did a nice job of structuring the film, counting down the time to opening night via simple on-screen text, in order to heighten the drama, since honestly, there's not much of an overarching storyline. The camera work is mercifully staid, since the kids are frequently all over the place, while the music is limited, but appropriately balanced, forwarding the theme of hope via a gentle, lilting score. Unfortunately, in the end, the whole exercise didn't really culminate in much of a climax, which is hard to say, since you want something special for the kids after all their work. But then, maybe it all depends on your point of view, and it truly is something special.
The audio is delivered as a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that clearly presents the well-recorded dialogue in the film, and provides very strong music when its present. The mix is vanilla plain, keeping everything balanced, but the material didn't need anything more complex.
The rest of the on-disc extras are text, including a bio of director Tricia Regan, a piece on the Autism Speaks organization and an "About Docurama" section, along with a selection of four Docurama trailers. You also get an eight-page companion guide to the film, though it's less detailed than hoped for, with a description of the Miracle Project, bios of Miracle Project leader Elaine Hall and the five main kids, answers to three questions about Autism (including signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder) and a list of additional resources. I expected more of a viewing guide, for those looking to hold a discussion about the film, but it's good information anyway.
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