'Best and Most Beautiful Things': Film Review

Sarah Ginsberg
This simultaneously poignant and uplifting documentary sometimes borders on being voyeuristic.

Garrett Zevgetis' documentary profiles a young woman who strives to be independent despite being afflicted with autism and legal blindness.

Garrett Zevgetis’ documentary profiles Michelle Smith, a young woman afflicted with legal blindness and Asperger's syndrome, who dreams of becoming a voice performer. That dream goes sadly unrealized, but she achieves fame of a different sort in the highly intimate and revealing Best and Most Beautiful Things. Her captivating presence is the linchpin of the film, which proves alternately inspiring and depressing even while skirting uncomfortably close to voyeurism.

Filmed in her late teens and early 20s, Smith is seen attending Massachusetts’ Perkins School for the Blind, whose notable alumni include Helen Keller. The film’s title stems from a quotation by the deaf-blind author and activist: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched; they must be felt with the heart.”

The bubbly Smith — who delights in anime, her doll collection and her cat — proves determined to persevere despite her infirmities and daunting odds. Living with her divorced mother in Bangor, Maine, she’s unemployed, having been fired from her job for reasons related to her autism rather than her visual disability. She very much wants to live independently, and reacts ebulliently when a school counselor informs her that she can arrange an intern position with the Los Angeles-based company behind Rugrats. But, as another of the school’s instructors points out, the idea that Smith can live on her own in L.A. is more of a pipe dream than reality.

The film veers into uncomfortable territory with its revelation that Smith embraces BDSM, which she says represents a freedom denied in other aspects of her life. We see her and her new boyfriend eagerly discussing sex toys, like the flogger he’s recently given her, as well as her mother’s discomfort upon discovering such items in her daughter’s bedroom. That the young woman is interested in sexual experimentation is not so much the issue as is the inevitable question that arises with these sorts of cinema verite documentaries: namely, how much the subjects are adjusting their behavior for the camera. Similarly problematic are the scenes involving Smith’s interactions with her father and brothers, all of whom look distinctly uncomfortable while trying to appear normal.

Best and Most Beautiful Things is technically impressive, with the cinematography often providing a blurry visual perspective mirroring its subject’s impaired vision. But while Smith’s resolute cheerfulness in the face of daunting obstacles is heartwarming, it’s hard for the viewer not to feel uneasy at times in the realization that her reality is far less sunny.

Production: Beacon Street Films
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Garrett Zevgetis
Producers: Jeff Consiglio, Ariana Garfinkel, Jordan Salvatoriello, Garret Zevgetis
Executive producer: Kevin Bright
Directors of photography: Sarah Ginsburg, Jordan Salvatoriello
Editor: Jeff Consiglio
Composer: Tyler Strickland
Not rated, 90 minutes