Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

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Aspie Seeks Love


Dave Matthews - not the guy with the band.

Dave Matthews – not the guy with the band.

(2015) Documentary (Animal) David Matthews, Diana Dugina, Zo Weslowski, Wayne Wise, Aaron Schall, Ryan Dugina, Elizabeth Kaske, Dina Matthews, Heather Conroy, Chuck Kinder, Diane Cecily, Nikki Trader, Erika Mikkalo, Phil Gorrow, David Cherry, Rebecca Klaw. Directed by Julie Sokolow

Florida Film Festival 2015

One thing that nearly all of us have in common regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender or any other defining statistic is the need to be loved. We all want it; to be in the company of someone whose emotional connection to us is as deep as ours to them. To live out our lives with the one person we feel safest with, who accepts us as we are and who makes our hearts beat just that much faster when they walk in the room.

Those with Asperger’s Syndrome are no different. Asperger’s is a mental disorder in the autism spectrum, although it is high-functioning; often you won’t know from talking to them that they have any disorders at all. Asperger’s affects the ability to read nonverbal communication and makes social interaction much more different and frustrating. So much of courtship has to do with non-verbal cues; an Asperger’s sufferer won’t be able to pick up on any of them.

David V. Matthews lives in Pittsburgh and has his own style which some may write off as quirky. He’s a gifted writer, an artist and a bit of a bon vivant in the sense that he can captivate a room with his personality. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the tender age of 41, which came as a bit of a relief – his mental tics and eccentricities now had an explanation beyond “that’s just something David does.” There was a reason for the way he behaved and the difficulties he had relating to others.

At the same time, it also meant – to his mind – that there was something broken with him, which can be a scary thing. Suffering from clinical depression myself, I know that feeling, alone in the dark when once you’ve discovered that you have this issue, you wonder “What else is broken in me too?” Asperger’s is not something you can take a pill and are then able to deal with social situations normally any more than someone with depression can take a pill and be happy.

David has tried a lot of different things to find love, including going to mixers that his support group throws, leaving quirky fliers around Pittsburgh essentially advertising himself as a romantic possibility for lonely ladies, to online dating through the service OKCupid. He is a handsome enough man although now pushing 50, most of the women available are single moms, divorcees or women who have either not had the time for a personal life or the inclination for one.

Sokolow divides the movie by holidays which is an interesting way of organizing the footage, but effective. She doesn’t pull punches here; watching David sometimes flounder in social situations makes you want to yell out advice to the screen. Then it hits you.

None of us are born with a manual that tells us how to attract the opposite sex. Mostly what we go through is a system of trial and error, emphasis on the latter. All of us, myself included, can recall painful episodes of wasted opportunities, catastrophic mistakes and missed chances when it comes to romance. We all have had painful experiences that have (hopefully) taught us for the next time around. We can all relate to what David is going through, but whereas those without Asperger’s can learn from their experiences, so too can David and others with Asperger’s but only in a limited sense; if they miss non-verbal cues the first time around, they’ll miss the same cues the second.

David, like many Asperger’s patients, has an atypical speech pattern; in David’s case, it is clipped and hyper-precise. This sometimes makes him sound condescending when I don’t think that’s really what his intention is at all. He also has a sense of humor that runs to the surreal and absurd; not everyone will connect with David as a person for these reasons. Some will find him to be overbearing but some will also find him to be the coolest person in the room and judging from what I saw over admittedly just over an hour of footage I would tend to characterize him as the latter. Of course, that’s all instinct on my end; your results may vary.

We can all see ourselves a little in David for the most part. Trying hard, sometimes too hard to connect with others only to be faced with disappointment and rejection time and time again, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and launch ourselves back into the fray. Not all of us find the right one, at least not right away, but we keep on trying. You admire that about David; he knows that he is playing the game of love at a disadvantage but he perseveres. To use a sports metaphor, he’s the Muggsy Bogues (a 5’3″ point guard for the Charlotte Hornets who was the shortest player in NBA history) of romance.

The movie has a sweet ending that will put a grin on your face when you leave the theater which is priceless; it will also teach you something about Asperger’s and the everyday lives of those who live with it or have loved ones who do. Although the movie feels slow-paced at times, the short running time makes that a bit more tolerable than it might ordinarily. Still with all that, Aspie Seeks Love will get a favorable reaction from you solely depending on how you react to Matthews, and how you react to him says a lot more about you than it does about him.

Incidentally, you can connect further to Matthews at his blogsite where you can read excerpts from his forthcoming novel. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet ending. A real warts-and-all look at a real world issue. Educational about Asperger’s Syndrome for those unfamiliar with it.
REASONS TO STAY: Matthews’ personality may take some getting used to by some. Laid-back feel and pacing may not appeal to everybody.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sokolow began as an indie rock performer with a critically acclaimed album Something About Violins to her credit; this is her first feature-length film after directing several shorts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Keeping Room

Mozart and the Whale


Mozart and the Whale

Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell are taken for a ride.

(Millennium) Josh Hartnett, Radha Mitchell, Gary Cole, John Carroll Lynch, Rusty Schwimmer, Erica Leerhsen, Nate Mooney, Sheila Kelly, Robert Wisdom. Directed by Petter Naess

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism in which the patients are high-functioning, with a difficulty in socializing but an amazing ability to lock in on something that fascinates them, whether it is mathematics, trivia or molecular structure. They are often misunderstood as social misfits when in reality they just don’t have the mechanism to cope with social situations that the rest of us take for granted.

Jerry (Hartnett) is a New York cab driver who is afflicted with Asperger’s. He can add numbers in his head like a human calculator, but he has trouble carrying on a conversation without turning it into a non-stop soliloquy filled with random facts. He loves birds to the extent that many fly free in his terminally cluttered apartment, and he often takes one with him to work driving his cab (which begs the question; wouldn’t it fly out the door whenever someone got in or out?) much to the discomfort of his passengers.

Like many Asperger’s patients, he needs routine and structure and when things break out of the routine, he has difficulty coping. When he accidentally runs into a parked car, he gathers his things and walks away, leaving a group of angry people.

He belongs to a group of fellow Asperger’s patients, and he takes comfort in the presence of people he can relate to, even though some of them like Gregory (Lynch) can be a bit on the curmudgeonly side.

Into this group comes Isabelle (Mitchell) who has been referred to it by her therapist. She is the diametric opposite of Donald; where he is introverted and shy, she is straightforward and without fear. She is direct where he is not. She comes into his life much like a cannonball would come into a group of Civil War-era infantrymen and she has much the same effect. She invites him to a Halloween party and dresses up like Mozart; he puts on a rather disheveled whale costume and almost doesn’t show up because he is so obsessive about time.

Despite all the obstacles, the two form a romantic partnership that brings a brand new dimension into their lives. When Isabelle cleans up Donald’s apartment, he freaks out but eventually he begins to learn how to accept her presence into his life. When he realizes that they can’t afford the house she wants and the lifestyle they both want, he takes a job at a university in statistics where he excels. When he invites his boss over for dinner, it turns into a disaster largely in part to Isabelle’s inability to cope with the situation.

There is obviously a deep emotional connection between the two, but it becomes just as clear that their Asperger’s is getting in the way of their relationship. Will they be able to overcome something so deeply ingrained in them?

This is based loosely on real life couple Jerry and Mary Newport. Norwegian director Naess, whose resume includes the Oscar-nominated Elling, does a magnificent job in portraying the disease, so much so that the movie is often screened at legitimate autism conferences as an illustration of the social consequences of the disease.

Hartnett, who was reportedly unhappy with the final version of the film and consequently did little or no promotion of the movie, does some of the best work of his career here. He gives Donald depth that one wouldn’t expect, making him seem real and authentic. Much of this is due to Ronald Bass’ script but Hartnett pulls out some nuances that I didn’t think he had in him based on previous performances. This is the kind of movie that could get him more challenging roles if he wants to pursue that kind of work.

Mitchell, who has become a steady leading actress since first attracting notice in Pitch Black, also does a great job, making Isabelle entirely non-stereotypical and giving her the kind of spunk and fullness of life that make her in many ways the most memorable aspect of the movie. While Hartnett’s performance is more subtle, Mitchell gets to go over the top here and she does it nicely without descending into parody. Her and Hartnett make an attractive couple and while the chemistry is non-traditional, it works all the same.

The supporting cast of veteran character actors does well in their roles, particularly Lynch and Schwimmer. At no time do you get the feeling that anyone is looking down on their characters; these are all real people with real problems and while they may have different challenges than we do, that makes them no less fascinating.

This is director Naess’ first American film, and he does pretty well although the pacing gets a little choppy. Then again, that may be due to the nature of the characters that can lose interest in something and simply stop. That makes it occasionally difficult on the viewer who feels like the movie is veering off unexpectedly. It’s a kind of cinematic vertigo. While he never descends into movie of the week treacle, there are a few moments that are overly sentimental to me but thankfully they are few and far between.

While most look at Rain Man as their view into autism, in many ways this is a much more authentic look (although some groups have criticized the movie for playing into the perception that all autism patients have savant-like skills, which is actually much more rare than Hollywood would lead you to believe) at the disease. As a society, we tend to marginalize these people or worse, ignore them altogether. Hopefully, a viewing of Mozart and the Whale will give you a fresh perspective on a disease that affects real people and is in nearly every community in one form or another.

WHY RENT THIS: A very authentic-feeling look at the lives of those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hartnett and Mitchell have some quirky chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s pacing can be a bit abrupt. There are moments that are a bit mawkish.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some allusions to sexual subjects and a little bit of foul language but otherwise nothing too disturbing. However, the subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The screenplay was written by Ronald Bass who also wrote Rain Man, another movie about autism. He was inspired in this case by a 1995 article on Jerry and Mary Newport.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tony Manero