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Autism - The Musical - documentary DVD review
AUTISM - THE MUSICAL Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 5 stars
Featuring: Elaine Hall, Neal Hall, Adam, Henry, Lexington Juvenile Precision Team
Director: Tricia Regan   Distributor: Docurama
DVD release: 13 May 2008   Runtime: 93 min. (1 disc)
Format: Color, DVD-Video, NTSC
DVD Features: Languages (English - Dolby Digital Stereo), Companion guide, Deleted scenes, About Autism Speaks, Filmmaker Biography, Trailers

Documentaries are more engaging, more flavorful now, than the dry, dank informational shows of yesteryear. Autism: The Musical follows suit, with a constant flow of knowledge and emotion. It is a montage of stories told by the parents of children with autism, and by the kids themselves. We hear their words, their feelings and thoughts, and we get a rare intimate look into their lives. Hopefully, understanding and compassion will be the more common reaction from mainstream families as a result of this movie.

Elaine Hall adopted her son, Neal, from a Russian orphanage when he was not quite two. Their bond was unmistakable from the moment she saw him. As he grew, there were clear indications that some things were not as expected: Neal had autism. After her divorce, Elaine raised him alone - a huge undertaking. Being a single parent is difficult at the best of times. Parenting an autistic child is exhausting and draining. This strong, compassionate, and creative woman founded Kids On Stage, Inc., after years of struggles and triumphs on her own. She wanted a career that would allow her to help other families like her own and allow them to shine.

The Miracle Project was her vision: engaging autistic children in song and acting to put on a real play at the end of a 22-week session. The courage to undertake such a project - a handful of autistic children, all focused on a common goal - is admirable, and maybe a little crazy? The idea was to offer them a therapeutic and safe place to play together and be who they really are with acceptance and support. More so, though, Coach Elaine wanted to prove to them and their families that these children have something to share, something special to give. With an unfathomable depth of patience and love, she leads them to create a play and then perform the ensemble. Their victories and resulting happiness are downright infectious. In watching, we get to enjoy that feeling, too.

The real stars of Autism: The Musical are Neal, Lexi, Henry, Adam and Wyatt. Each has autism, and in each of them, it manifests a little differently. A lot of times, these children are simply not seen, overlooked, avoided. This movie offers them their chance to shine and to share. Neal is a mainstreamed student working through a typical classroom and works so hard every day to master a certain amount of impulse control. His "talking machine" offered a huge break through, allowing him to communicate his thoughts and feelings more clearly. Henry is the dinosaur and reptile aficionado. It would be surprising to meet someone with more knowledge and passion in his chosen area of expertise. Wyatt has so much to say, so much he wants to express, from friends and bullies to books and play. Lexi seems to show a joy in life that most of us have forgotten to hold onto. Her singing is clear and sure and heartbreaking. We get to share in her first small crush on a boy, with their sweet smiles and tentative friendship. Little Adam uses his cello as his voice some of the time, and his sheer pleasure in playing well is intoxicating. He has a one-on-one, Ms. Vee, who helps him through school and in Coach E's group.

With intense thoroughness, editor Kim Roberts also takes us through conversations with the parents, showing us yet another facet of their world. The extras continue to educate, through humor and experiences. There is even a little companion guide book that comes with the DVD to keep on hand that offers a small bio of each of the young stars.

With facts intimately colored by personal and sensitive experiences, the ABCs of autism are explained. The voices of these children are heard, and the pain and joy of the parents are shared so openly that it is impossible not to empathize. I dare you to watch with dry eyes. Autism: The Musical pushes the limits of expression, demanding understanding through information. The families involved in this documentary put themselves, their lives and feelings on the line in hopes that the general public will be able to see their kids differently: valued, appreciated, and accepted for who they are and for the gifts they have to offer.
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reviewed by Carolynn Evans
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