Autism: The Musical
Docurama // Unrated // $26.95 // May 13, 2008
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted May 12, 2008
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In 10 Words or Less
Coping alongside the parents of children with autism

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Good documentaries
Likes: A life-affirming story
Hates: Feeling bad because of the plight of others

The Movie
In the months leading up to the birth of my daughter, one thing worried me more than anything else, and that was the statistic that said that one in 150 children is diagnosed with Autism. You try and tell yourself that what ever happens is the way it's meant to be, and that you will love your child no matter what, but until you are in that reality, you never know how you will handle it.

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.

A one-disc release, the DVD is packed in a standard keepcase, with an eight-page insert and a hefty Docurama catalog, and features a static full-frame menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes and check out the extras. It's been a while since I last watched a Docurama DVD, and it looks like the menu designs have been given a slight polish from their dull gray days. Surprisingly, there are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.

The Quality
The full-frame transfer on this film is solid, but unspectacular, with appropriate colors and a decent level of detail. There's a bit of source material used, which is OK in terms of quality, while the look of the non-interview material is dependent on the location and lighting condition. Most of the time, it's pretty good, though it washes out in many spots. It's not the best documentary ever in terms of the visuals, but it's pretty good nonetheless.

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 Extras
The biggest extra is the 35-minute chunk of deleted scenes included, which can be viewed all at once, or in 12 individual moments. There are some interesting scenes here, which really wouldn't fit into the flow of the film, covering more of the kids' home lives and going into more detail about some children who were only seen briefly in the movie. One scene in particular, which watches one of the kids receive his first holy communion, might have worked, since the idea of religion is broached in the movie.

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.

The Bottom Line
Inspiring? Depends on your expectations. Interesting? Certainly. Heartbreaking? Without a doubt. For fans of human interest stories and tales of the human condition, this is like catnip. The DVD looks and sounds solid, but there's not much in the realm of extras. Give it a look to see the effect this increasingly prevalent condition has on the people closest to it, and if you're so inclined, you can have a good cry.

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