‘How to Dance in Ohio': Sundance Review

Hot to Dance in Ohio
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A conventional but cleanly made work that accentuates the positive for a change

This portrait of teens and young people on the autistic spectrum preparing for their first formal dance plays on HBO later this year

A touching, gentle-hearted look at teenagers on the autistic spectrum preparing for their first formal dance, How to Dance in Ohio offers a refreshingly upbeat, even cheerful look at people and their families coping with the condition. This third conventional but cleanly made doc feature by director Alexandra Shiva (Bombay Eunuch, Stagedoor) is one of the few films about autism to focus on women, although that scarcity is hardly surprising given three out of four people with the condition are men.

Advocates for people on the spectrum may feel more critical of the film’s sentimental aspects and the way it barely touches on the huge challenges facing autistics trying to integrate into the neurotypical (i.e. “normal”) world. On the other hand, its engagement with its subjects will help generate understanding and empathy among mainstream viewers, and that can only be a good thing. The film will premiere on HBO in 2015.

Set, as the title might suggest, in Columbus, Ohio, the draws its subjects from the pool of clients attending clinical psychologist Dr. Emilio Amigo’s family counselling center where the good doctor and his staff run group therapy sessions to help high-functioning young people to cope with life skills. Every year the practice organizes a formal dance in the spring, with all the traditional prom-night trappings of dates, corsages, and a crowning of a King and a Queen. It’s the kind of event many autistic teens attending mainstream schools would see as a minefield of challenges, requiring them to negotiate baffling social etiquette rules they don’t understand.

So in the months and weeks leading up to the big event, Amigo and the staff talk the youngsters through each part of the experience step by step – quite literally in the case of dance lessons. Also included on the curriculum: asking people to be your date and how to say no politely, tolerating physical contact during slow dances, and knowing exactly where every doorway, bathroom and refreshment table will be at the venue in advance in order to minimize distress with the unfamiliar.

Over the course, a wide variety of clients of both sexes are introduced. One spot-on montage has each of them describing their various interests – ranging from anime, animals, dressing up in costumes, to electrical circuitry and endocrinology – obsessions that will sound extremely familiar to anyone who’s been close to people on the spectrum.

Soon the focus zooms in on three young women. Sixteen-year-old Marideth Bridges loves reading almanacs and encyclopedias, and spends most of her time at home on her computer auto-didactically collecting facts. Her parents and sister have to chivvy her to interact with them, but they seem hopeful she’ll someday live independently. Jessica Sullivan, 22, has already achieved that goal to an extent, living in a shared home away from her supportive parents and holding down a job at a bakery run by psychologist Audrey Todd that specifically employs people on the spectrum. Jessica is best friends with Caroline McKenzie, 19, an outgoing college student studying in Japanese who already has a boyfriend, Jay, whom she met at Amigo’s practice, so that means at least two people already sorted out for a date on the big night.

There are some to be expected crying spells and anxiety attacks along the way, but in the end everything goes off swimmingly on the big night when one of three girls is crowned Queen. Compared to other documentaries about the condition, it’s heartening to see one that accentuates the positive so much, showing families where the parents have managed to keep their marriages intact, where no one gets bullied, no one is a savant, and there’s no mention of the debate around vaccines. The inclusion of a slowed down, semi-acoustic version over the end credits of “Fireworks” by Katy Perry, the unofficial anthem of the disability rights movement, is a little on the nose but tear-jerking all the same.

Production companies: An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Gidalya Pictures production in association with Blumhouse Productions
With: Emilio Amigo, Marideth Bridges, Caroline McKenzie, Jessica Sullivan, Ashley Amigo, Jodi Bridges, Margaret Bridges, Michael Bridges, Saundra Goettemoeller, Shaun Klingensmith, Johanna McKenzie, Greg McKenzie, Sarah Perry, Patrick Sullivan, Teresa Sullivan
Director: Alexandra Shiva
Producers: Alexandra Shiva, Bari Pearlman
Executive producers: Jason Blum
Cinematographer: Laela Kilbourn
Editor: Toby Shimin
Composer: Bryan Senti
Sales: Gidalya Pictures

No rating, 88 minutes