If I were to hazard a guess, I would imagine that a good majority of neurodiverse individuals will find themselves troubled by yet still somewhat engaged with the Greenwich Entertainment feature doc Let Me Be Me. It's hard, perhaps impossible, to not be completely engaged by the film's central subject Kyle Westphal. In a world where the primal scream of "Nothing about us without us!" has increasingly become the mantra of the disability community, one has to rejoice that Westphal's voice speaks loudly throughout Dan Crane and Katie Taber's deeply moving yet occasionally quite challenging doc.
The story is familiar. Set in the mid-90's, a three-year-old boy begins exhibiting developmentally atypical behaviors with no clear explanation. By now, you're probably already saying to yourself "autism." You would, of course, be correct. However, this was the mid-90's and that answer didn't come so easily and the prognosis was less than hopeful with words like "institution" muttered by clueless medical professionals whose methods were still rather primitive.
Officially diagnosed by age six, this young boy, Kyle, was fully living with what felt like to the family as his own world. Isolative, detached, unable to connect, and living with pronounced stimming, Kyle's existence within his family home seemed to be hanging by a thread.
As it turned out, it would be thread that would prove to be a great connector.
With a desire to improve their son's quality of life and to find a way to connect with him (and him to them), Kyle's parents embraced an expensive, time intensive, and radical for its time intervention offered by the Autism Treatment Center of America called Son-Rise. The Westphals took the basement of their suburban Philadelphia home and essentially turned it into a safe space for Kyle, a place where Kyle's anxieties could be reduced and a place where his stimming could be more effectively addressed and supported. It would become a place where rather than trying to force change upon Kyle his parents could simply join him in his world and tiptoe toward moments of genuine connection.
Let Me Be Me is at its most engaging and exhilarating when it focuses its lens exclusively on Kyle, an enchanting young man whose retreat into fabrics as a safe space during his childhood years perhaps hinted at the future to come - Kyle is now a successful fashion designer, a graduate of Drexel University whose ability to connect and develop a circle of friends perhaps seemed elusive to his parents so many years ago as they spent hour after hour in their basement doing whatever it took to join their son in his world and to let him be the person he was born to be.
Let Me Be Me is perhaps a little more challenging during those times when it seems to dance closely to being not much more than an enthusiastic advertisement for the now 40+ year-old Son-Rise Program. While the enthusiasm is understandable given the program's role in Kyle's life and his transformation, these scenes tonally shift the film and also at times hint of an ableism grounded in the idea that somehow this program "cured" Kyle's autism (HINT: It didn't and Kyle's a pretty awesome guy with autism).
In one of the film's most impactful and hilarious scenes, Kyle's own sister pushes back on this ideal that perhaps Kyle's autism was cured with a simple "He's still weird."
While these scenes are a little cringe-worthy, they're also vital parts of the path that the Westphals have followed with autism. Nearly every parent wants the best for their child and, yes, many parents fear that a diagnosis of autism, or for that matter any other life-changing disability, will negatively impact their child's quality of life.
I write this as an adult with spina bifida who was originally given three days to live and very nearly institutionalized who is now in my 50's, living alone, working full-time, and living my good life.
There's always hope, however, it's realistic to say that it doesn't necessarily "feel" like there's always hope.
Let Me Be Me incorporates an array of visual methods to drive home the complex nature of the Westphal family journey with a strong focus on Kyle's own transformation over the years. Co-directors Dan Crane and Katie Taber don't gloss over the challenges from those early years, encounters and experiences often captured in numerous archival videos originally made to support the actual Son-Rise program. The most enchanting segments involve stop-motion animation representing Kyle's memories and experiences, a rather fantastic way to bring to life the emotional aspects of the neurodiverse experience.
The Westphal parents come off as both fierce advocates, relentless parents, and richly human persons who occasionally made mistakes but devoted themselves to improving their son's life even if it meant losing sleep while both working full-time jobs and then joining Kyle in the basement for hours on end. Kyle's siblings, as well, openly share about the difficulty of growing up within that experience yet also clearly enjoy a connected relationship with him now and have what may very well be the film's most rewarding insights.
Let Me Be Me isn't a perfect film, however, it is a rewarding film that tells a perfectly engaging and valuable story brought to life by the frequent narration of Kyle himself. Practically glowing nearly every time he's working within his fashion world, Kyle himself draws us in and keeps us utterly captivated with his honesty, candor, and humor.
After a successful festival run, Let Me Be Me has been picked up by indie distributor Greenwich Entertainment and is a valuable and entertaining resource for a world that still doesn't always quite understand autism and still far too often attempts to change "behaviors" instead of embracing the experiences of those who are neurodiverse.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic