Autism: The Musical



Palm Springs International Film Festival

PALM SPRINGS -- Well-deserving of its slot on the Academy Awards shortlist for best documentary, "Autism: The Musical" is a moving testament to love and hope in the face of a diagnosis that seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.

While the five remarkable young performers spotlighted in Tricia Regan's film exhibit types of behavior that are as wide-ranging as the long-impenetrable neurological disorder itself, they share a diligent support group in the form of family members and the passionate acting teacher who has found a way to tap into their inner world.

In fact, the main attraction is beside the point, as Regan is less concerned with the actual show these kids put on than with the intriguing steps taken to get them there over the course of a six-month period.

Slated to air on HBO in April, the film also merits theatrical exposure, especially if it makes the cut when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 22.

Aside from pointing out the unsettling fact that autism was diagnosed in 1 in 10,000 children in 1980 but today affects 1 in about 150 American children, the film dispenses with statistics and factoids in favor of a more intimate approach.

First we meet Elaine Hall, a former TV drama coach who redirected her professional energies after her son, Neal, was diagnosed with a severe form of autism.

Upon discovering that bringing in creative people -- such as actors, writers and musicians -- to engage her son proved more successful than traditional therapies, Hall developed the Miracle Project, a musical theater program catering to both special-needs and developmentally on-track kids.

Joining now-12-year-old Neal in that first category are four other fascinating children, including 14-year-old Lexi, who looks like a typical teen and sings like a Broadway baby; sensitive, articulate-beyond-his-years Wyatt; resident dinosaur expert Henry, who turns out to be Stephen Stills' son; and 9-year-old cello virtuoso Adam.

Watching Coach E. unlock some of those doors and windows into the kids' closely guarded inner lives is as absorbing as hearing their parents' fears and frustrations is heartbreaking.

And as is Regan's and Hall's intention, that journey to opening night ultimately proves more rewarding than whatever transpires after the curtain comes up.

HBO Documentary Films
Bunim/Murray Prods. in association with In Effect Films
Director/director of photography: Tricia Regan
Producers: Tricia Regan, Perrin Chiles, Sasha Alpert
Executive producers: Jonathan Murray, Joey Carson, Janet Grillo, David S. Glynn, Kristen Stills
Music: Mike Semple
Editor: Kim Roberts
Running time -- 94 minutes
No MPAA rating