So, singer/songwriter Sia has caused quite a kerfuffle in recent months because of her directorial debut, simply called Music. Ostensibly, it’s about a young autistic girl who, after the death of her grandmother, goes to live with her older sister, a drug-dealer/recovering alcoholic who is apparently the only relative Music has. Her sister, named Zu (QUIRKEEEEEE!!!!!!!!), is also woefully uninformed about autism, which attracts the attention of the Magical Black Person living next door, who knows all about it.
A lot of people, both autistic and not, have expended much virtual ink on Sia’s depiction of autism and the many, many problems with a movie that isn’t even very good on a purely artistic level (I’m honestly amazed Leslie Odom Jr. could say “crushing her with my love” without cringing so hard he teleported into another time zone). People have talked about the dangerous depiction of restraining an autistic person, the fact that Sia did all her research from Autism Speaks (which is to autistic people what PETA is to pets), Sia’s meltdowns on Twitter when confronted, Sia’s unhealthy relationship with actress/dancer Maddie Ziegler, and various other issues.
I am not autistic. I have other issues. I am, however, part of a family with several autistic people in it – all my siblings are on the spectrum, as is my mother, my uncle, and my late grandmother. Honestly, I think it’s more a continuum than a spectrum, since there are many, many areas in which autistic people have differing characteristics. For instance, did you know that some autistic people are extroverts? It’s true!
There’s also a lot of debate about whether Sia should have hired an autistic actor to play the central role. I’m not going to concretely opine about it one way or another, but I can say this: it is perfectly possible for neurotypical actors to play autistic people in a respectful way. Take the TV show Alphas from the early 2010s, which has an autistic character as one of its cast, played by a neurotypical actor. For the most part, Ryan Cartwright did a very good job, playing the character with subtlety, a lack of harmful stereotypes, and a general feeling of respect. His character, 97% of the time, felt like an actual person and not a stereotypical savant with some quirks.
So there’s absolutely no excuse for the depiction of autism to be as bad as it is in Music. No excuse.
I mean, this is bad. The autistic character, Music, is played with the kind of exaggeration that is usually associated with mockery and contempt. I can’t speak to Sia’s motives, but Maddie Ziegler’s performance is a horrendous depiction of autism. Maybe she was directed to act that way, but I can definitely say that her expressions and body language are… just horrible.
And the sad thing is, this was not a project whose premise was doomed from the beginning. I mean, imagine what Music could have been: a story about a young autistic girl who loses the person who has always taken care of her, and has to struggle with her grief. As if that wouldn’t be devastating enough, she’s thrown into a new, not-very-stable life with someone who doesn’t understand her and isn’t equipped to give her the kind of steady, reliable care she needs. It could have been a study of how this girl’s disability leads her to struggle even more with an already-difficult situation, and it would have been so much more satisfying when she finds some kind of happiness and stability…
… but it’s not. Because Music is not about Music.
Yeah, that might be one of the most baffling things about this movie. While it’s marketed as being about Music, and it’s called Music, it’s not actually her story. The story is mostly about her sister Zu, and her problems, and her issues with Music, and her romance with the Magical Black Person next door (who has AIDS, because he’s from Africa and apparently Sia thinks all Africans have AIDS), and her character arc about learning to love Music, and her happy ending.
I’m not saying that Music is not a significant presence in the movie, but she seems like a passive presence. She exists for two reasons: to further Zu’s story about how hard it is to have an autistic sibling, and to add colorful whimsy in the form of various music videos. She’s not there to have her own story. She’s an object to facilitate Zu’s growth.
Which is kind of confusing, because… the movie is called Music, not Zu. Why would you name a movie after a person who doesn’t even have a character arc? It would be like making the movie Batman Begins, but instead of focusing on Bruce Wayne, you spend the movie following Alfred. Why make a Batman movie that focuses on someone else?
And why make a movie called Music that isn’t about the character named Music?
I can only assume – and remember, these are just my impressions, I may be wrong – that Sia never tried to get into the head of an autistic person or understand how they think. Depicting their thoughts through music videos suggests that she just sees them as twee and quirky, not as people with their own feelings and thoughts.
So anyway, those are my rambling thoughts about Music, a movie that really needed a more sensitive and intelligent person at the helm than Sia. She’s a wonderful singer and songwriter, but this movie shows a surface-level awareness of deep, complicated issues, and a complete lack of awareness that autistic people are anything more than a mass of funny faces, quirky visuals and freakouts. Thank you, and good night.