AUTISM: THE MUSICAL follows the extraordinary and innovative acting coach Elaine Hall, five autistic children, and their parents as they improbably, heroically mount a full-length original stage production. Through trial and error, tears and laughter, these incredible families learn to communicate their feelings in song and performance, finding solace and joy in the act of creating.
A veritable feast of astounding breakthroughs and heartbreaking hardship, this spellbinding film offers a full-throated celebration of kids living with this increasingly prevalent disorder. Director Tricia Regan vividly captures the individual personalities and problems of each child, from precocious Henry who talks a mile-a-minute about dinosaurs to Neal, a sensitive and articulate boy who nonetheless struggles to speak at all. The parents, too, are fascinating studies in unconditional love, especially Elaine, the mastermind in the back of the musical and mother of Neal.
A consciousness-raising and empathetic portrait of children and their families living with autism, AUTISM: THE MUSICAL celebrates the spark of humanity in each of us. Called ‘Moving, dramatic, therapeutic and unburdened by reliance on talking heads’; (Variety), this film will change the way you look at autism
It’s hard to consider an unlikelier feel-good documentary than the uplifting Autism: The Musical. Directed for HBO by Tricia Regan, but truly the brainchild of the vision–and sheer will–of Elaine Hall, the film is both unflinching in its portrayal of autism, and triumphant in the ways it shows connections among the film’s subjects. For those dealing with autism–and as the diagnosis grows more common, that would be nearly everyone–this film is enlightening, engaging, and reaffirming.The film chronicles the first theater arts endeavor of the L.A.-based Miracle Project, the creation of Hall (“Coach E”), a playwright and the single mother of Neal, a nearly speechless autistic boy. Through networking, Hall has met a group of parents of children with an enormous range of autistic symptoms and decides to take a look at a workshop in which the children will, in a matter of months, be cohesive enough to perform in a stage production. The film follows Hall from the initial (and skeptical) meetings of the parents, and introduces the several children followed right through the rehearsal period. Part of the disarming strength of the film is that it changes its perspective on showing the children’s personalities. Viewers first meet 14-year-old Lexi when she’s singing a musically complex Joni Mitchell song, in a clear, absolutely lovely soprano, in what appears to be a regular singing lesson. Only later do we learn that Lexi, diagnosed with autism as a toddler, has a hard time originating her own speech–though hearing her sing, the viewer would never have guessed. (Her parents still struggle with Lexi’s condition, with her mother alternating between frustration and despair, and her father calmly saying, “It’s not up to us to pass judgement on the quality of her life.”) Other kids with behavioral issues or communication challenges are among the cast members, and the early scenes show a barely-controlled chaos that clearly mirrors the daily lives of the parents. The toll of dealing with their children is shown, as marriages break up and friendships are strained. Yet love blossoms in the most unlikely places, as Hall shows midway through the film. By the triumphant finale, the viewer is as invested in the children’s lives as the parents, and the performances, at the same time as perhaps not what one would have expected at the beginning, present nothing short of a true “Bravo!” moment. As the kids sing, “Take a chance–get to know the real me.” —A.T. Hurley
Special message from Tricia Regan:
“I work with dangerous materials. When handled appropriately, a camera records the truth. When infused with a powerful belief, the results of months of editing can yield a film that slices through the layers of distraction and strikes you right at your very core.
It took perpetually to find a title for this movie. Autism: The Musical is not an “issue” film. Watching this film, you don’t seem to be going to learn all about the causes and treatments for autism. No experts are going to show up and describe to you in detail all of the various manifestations of autism. You are simply going to experience autism as the characters do: as their primary obstacle in life, and their primary obstacle in putting on an original musical.
By characters, I mean people. This movie is about people who are very real, and very raw, but also very funny and very entertaining. Autism can be devastating, let’s make no bones about that, but it is also a fact of life. And this particular group of people, parents and children alike, have taken on this challenge with courage, hard work, hope, sometimes denial and sometimes acceptance, but most importantly, they have not lost their sense of humor about it all.
So I wanted a title that wasn’t sacrosanct, that could let you know that it’s as okay to laugh and have a good time as it is to cry. Because my goal from the start has been to allow you to see these kids as whole people. And to give you firsthand experience of the dizzying, fascinating, sometimes terrifying and usually mystifying array of autism’s manifestations.
I consider in the inherent value of every living being, and their inalienable right to be respected for everything that they are. There is an entire generation of kids whose neurological systems have been altered by autism. Their challenges make it difficult for them to participate in the culture we have created. Our challenge, as a community, is to find room in our hearts, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and in our workplaces for these unique individuals. This film, which many have called a love story, brings home exactly why we should. So gather up a few hankies, and be prepared to laugh – but I must give you fair warning – this film will change the way you think, and not just about autism.”