Maddie Ziegler and Kate Hudson as Music and ZuTWITTER/JUANROURES

Idly scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago, a petition caught my eye: “The Golden Globes Must Rescind the Nomination for Sia’s Ableist Movie.” The petition has since ballooned to over 140,000 signatures, gaining a few thousand each day. Remarkably, this is not even the first petition on this topic: last year, another one pushed for HanWay Films to cancel the film altogether before its release, and is still active on change.org.

I couldn’t help but notice the peculiar resilience of this film. Despite an enormous wave of backlash from autistic activists, the film was not only released as planned, but sailed through to nominations under two categories during the 78th Golden Globes. If a film had been roundly criticised for multiple distressing scenes which recommend forcefully restraining women, for instance, the team behind it would probably have been disgraced, much less nominated for two Golden Globes. But within 30 minutes of the start of Music, prone restraint (which can be lethal) was presented as the correct way to calm down an autistic individual suffering a meltdown. Eventually, the Music team was forced to include a message specifying that they did not advocate the use of prone restraint, but the damage had been done. This demonstrates that we do have quite a long way to go when it comes to disability representation in film. “Not condoning lethal violence against disabled people” is a rather low bar to set.

“We see so little of Music’s emotions and development that she is not a character in her own right.”

Despite this outcry, I was determined to give the film a fair hearing. It is so easy to see a few convincing tweets which touch on an issue you feel passionate about and allow them to irreversibly shape your opinion. I avoided all reviews and comments on Music, hoping to discover some redeeming artistic qualities which had been overlooked because critics focused all their attention on a few tone-deaf decisions. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Sia apparently put together this movie as “a love letter to the autistic community,” but the voice of the autistic main character, Music (Maddie Ziegler), was far from the centre of the story. Most online discussion of this issue has concentrated on the decision to cast a neurotypical to play the lead role. Personally, I think that the importance of this decision has been slightly overstated. The problem with the “only autistic actors should play autistic characters” argument is that there are as many “autistic experiences” as there are autistic individuals. The challenges I have faced as someone who was originally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome are incredibly different to those faced by non-verbal autistic individuals, for instance. Individual autistic experiences are so heterogeneous that none of us are automatically perfect fits for any character who happens to share our condition, and respond very differently to the challenges it poses. I also think there’s a lot to be said for actors playing characters who are different to them, purely from the perspective of artistic challenge and developing empathy.

The music and dance segments of the film were also visually confusingTWITTER/KENNYSROYS

The main issue with Music’s character was the movie’s half-hearted attempts to show the world from her perspective, which fell completely flat. This was mostly done through music and dance segments featuring the three main characters and vocals by Sia. These did not advance the storyline and were interspersed with the rest of the film in quite a jarring way, such that a regular scene would cut to a musical segment and then an entirely different scene would begin “from scratch” after the segment. These choppy transitions would matter much less if each segment enabled deeper understanding and contextualisation of Music’s emotions and interactions. But they felt as if they were carelessly slapped together by CBeebies to fill a few extra minutes in a TV schedule, with lurid colours and saccharine, empty pop music. There are definitely ways to recreate the world as perceived by someone with sensory hypersensitivity in an emotionally impactful and far less belittling manner. I didn’t love the film X+Y (2014), but it did effectively depict how a cityscape’s rushing colours and abrupt sounds can be overwhelming to highly sensitive senses. A more realistic portrayal of overstimulation should be subtle, highlighting the permanent reality of being unable to tune out sensory stimuli and helping the audience to understand that when this bubbles over into a meltdown, that explosive reaction doesn’t just come from nowhere.

Zu's story is centred in the filmTWITTER/SIAINTERNACION1

Outside of these segments, Music’s perspective is hardly present. The story is mainly told through the eyes of Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering addict. This had the potential to be a touching reflection on reclaiming control of one’s life and learning to trust and rely on others. But the film never fully commits to telling Zu’s or Music’s story, instead violently bouncing between the two through alternations of musical segments and disjointed scenes. As a result, Zu’s character is just as simplistic and underdeveloped as Music’s. We never actually hear how she pushes herself to remain sober for a month, or follow the trajectory of her personal growth and changing viewpoints at all. She just changes instantaneously, with little buildup.

The film’s abrupt, happily-ever-after ending is where it conclusively fails at its purported aim of acknowledging and representing the autistic community. It sees Zu miraculously overcome her addiction “because she loves” Music: Zu suddenly gets her life together, and Music is her tool for doing so. Fundamentally, we see so little of her emotions and development that Music is not a character in her own right, but a mere plot device to push Zu towards her happy ending of recovery. This trope of a one-dimensional disabled character whose function in a story to “save” an able-bodied person rather than following their own arc is nothing new, but it is still extremely disappointing.


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Regardless of any casting decisions, this film still had the potential to flesh out its disabled protagonist and develop her into more than just a means for a neurotypical character’s self-actualisation. This potential was squandered. If you’re looking for a film about autism where the autistic protagonist is a person, not a prop, look elsewhere.