Chandra Wilson, whom most Americans know as Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey's Anatomy, proves to be the perfect narrator for Autism in America, a feature-length documentary from Zac Adams and Nashville-based Skydive Films (Hunger in America, Nashville Rises).
Weaving together expert commentary with personal experiences, Autism in America may very well be Skydive's most satisfying documentary yet, an intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant film that avoids many of the caricatures and stereotypes so often found in this type of documentary.
To understand Adams's approach to the film, one need only consider the film's tagline - "Putting the puzzle together, one beautiful piece at a time."
The wonder of Autism in America is that it recognizes children and adults with autism as human beings. It refuses to exploit the very people it portrays and, as a result, the film may very well be one of the more satisfying portraits of autism to come across the big screen yet. Adams, whose passion for people and social causes is evident throughout his work, has a unique ability to inform and educate without losing the ability to also entertain. Autism in America, a documentary about autism filled with clinical information and statistics galore, is also an immensely entertaining film that beautifully portrays the humanity of the children and adults whose stories are told.
Unlike the vast majority of films about autism and other intellectual disabilities, Autism in America approaches the people it portrays from a rather holistic approach and examines such vital topics as behavior, education, dating, marriage, diet, and more. There's not a "wink" when talking about marriage, though certainly the acknowledged statistics can paint a rather bleak picture in saying that only 10% of people with autism do marry, but instead there's an honesty and a hopefulness that seems to radiate from every cinematic cell of the film.
I must confess that I couldn't simply view Autism in America from a critic's viewpoint. Oh, I wish it were that easy. I am, after all, a paraplegic/double amputee with my own neurological disorder and cognitive challenges. In fact, I have a birth defect, spina bifida, for which the prevalence of autism is considered quite high. Additionally, I not only work as a film critic but as a program director for the State of Indiana's Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services. Thus, autism is a part of my everyday life.
To say I was looking forward to this film would be an understatement. I was not disappointed.
Chandra Wilson's narration is sure and steady, yet sensitive and warm. The film itself? I was impressed with the diversity of Adams's population, a subtle reminder that autism impacts lives across cultural, ethnic, economic, racial, and any other border you can possibly imagine. While in certain ways Autism in America won't really be filled to the brim with new information for those familiar with autism, what it will provide is a gentle reminder that "you are not alone" and that each child with autism is ultimately unique. Adams looks at the facts, the research, the stats, and the clinical theories, but what he ultimately does best is find ways to incorporate that information into the everyday lives of the people portrayed on the screen.
D.P. Michael Kenneth Sydenstricker II lenses the film with a clarity and intimacy that draws you in. Even more refreshingly, Sydenstricker avoids gratuitous shots of that piercing scream or other "typical" behaviors and instead allows the story to come to life through the testimonies of the people.
It is not very often that the words "joy" and "autism" are portrayed vividly on the big screen, but such is the case with Autism in America, a film that allows parents to say "this is really difficult" even as we're seeing scenes unfold of the beauty, wonder, challenge, and miracle of these relationships. It is truly refreshing beyond words to see disability portrayed in a way that focuses more on how we move toward ability.
Autism in America is a beautiful film and a beautiful reminder of the fullness and wonder of human beings of varied abilities. With intelligence, insight, sensitivity, and authenticity, Autism in America is, perhaps more than anything, a reminder that wherever we are on this diverse spectrum called life we are, indeed, a vital piece of the universal puzzle.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic