There are no special needs.
It's an empty term. It's a term designed to "other" people who are, in fact, just like everyone else. I mean, okay, maybe that's not quite accurate. We're all gloriously different, a unique tapestry of common qualities galore and those things that make us unique and special and human.
The need to be loved? That's not special. We all have it.
The need to be heard? Yep, that's pretty common.
The need to shine? Don't we all want to shine?
The need to belong? Every human being experiences the need to belong in their own way.
Special needs? Nah, I don't think so.
The truth is that having a disability, or being disabled depending upon whether you prefer person-first or identity-first language, is a pretty amazing way to live with a full spectrum of challenges that we like to call special but which are, in fact, simply part of what it means to be human.
Award-winning filmmaker Thaddeus D. Matula captures the rich humanity of the players who comprise the Dallas-based Spotlight Musical Theatre program, a program and ministry empowered by Highland Park United Methodist Church's Belong Ministry. As you might guess, the Belong Ministry is an outreach to individuals with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and, subsequently, the Spotlight Musical Theatre program itself features people of all abilities, ages, and faiths participating in this adaptive and inclusive musical theatre community and working together to perform an annual original musical.
As the opening credits scroll by, we're introduced to one of Spotlight's many regulars, a woman named Christi who is in the early stages of grieving the death of her husband and frequent stage companion (and yes, people with disabilities do have sex and do marry and do, in fact, desire most of the things people without disabilities desire). It is in these opening moments that we begin to realize that Matula isn't so much directing Into the Spotlight as he is facilitating it. He isn't telling the story - he's holding space for the Spotlight players themselves to tell their own stories and live their own truths. There's no sensationalism here - simply being human, being present, being talented, and being creative.
Into the Spotlight, because it holds space for people to tell their own stories, becomes an intelligent and heartfelt journey alongside adults with disabilities who take risks, celebrate their creativity, live complex lives, build community, and write, rehearse, and perform an original musical.
There are so many ways that Into the Spotlight could have gone wrong. It could have gone as usual - the filmmakers themselves or the professionals telling the stories on behalf of those with disabilities.
Into the Spotlight also could have turned into what the late disability rights activist Stella Young called "inspiration porn," an objectifying of those with disabilities for the benefit or gratification of those without disabilities.
That's also garbage. And very, very common with this type of film.
Instead, Matula keeps the lens on those Spotlight players featured in the film. Only those with disabilities are interviewed and only they, in turn, answer the questions. While there were a couple moments when Into the Spotlight danced close to that inspiration porn line, it's as if Matula instinctively knew to pull back and the editing team intuitively brought us back to honest humanity.
The stories that unfold in Into the Spotlight are engaging, honest, often quite poignant, and heartfelt. While you may very well find yourself inspired by Into the Spotlight, it's less because these individuals have disabilities and more because they are talented human beings showing us all what we can accomplish when we show up, work hard, and work together as a community.
There are heart-tugging moments for sure, from Christi's loss and grief to Nancy Appelman's fierce determination to work through a noise sensitivity triggered by drums within the show. There are other moments, for sure, where you'll shed a tear, laugh a little, smile, be inspired, and be challenged to live into your own dreams a little bit more.
Into the Spotlight has enjoyed a remarkably successful festival journey with several awards along the way. It seems destined to pick up more and should most assuredly find a home with an indie distributor that can make sure it finds the audience it so much deserves.
The award-winning Matula has crafted a gentle work of wonder here that celebrates humanity, diversity, and the creative spirit and he's aided by Sam Marshall's excellent original music and Logan Fulton's observational and intimate lensing throughout the film.
With wisdom and empathy galore, Into the Spotlight captures the creative spirit vibrantly brought to life by the talented members of the Spotlight Musical Theatre program as they work together to tell their stories and live their lives.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic