Melbourne International Film Festival Review: How To Dance In Ohio (USA, 2015)

How To Dance In Ohio is an intimate documentary that allows viewers to see the world through the eyes of a young person on the autistic spectrum. It’s an uplifting film that shows three young women who are coming-of-age and the challenges and triumphs they experience. The story is a gentle, subtle and uplifting one that’s a must-see for everyone.

The film is directed by documentarian, Alexandra Shiva who has garnered a reputation for telling stories about people who don’t make headlines or who are on the margins of society. Her previous works include, Bombay Eunuch about a transgender group in India and Stagedoor about young men who love theatre. How To Dance In Ohio is a personal story for Shiva because she has a friend whose teenage child is on the spectrum.

In Ohio, Dr. Emilio Amigo is the psychologist and owner of a progressive family counselling practice. His organisation offers support to children and families who are have a member that is on the autistic spectrum. The practice teaches the individual social skills and how to relate to others as well as offering therapy. This film chronicles the 12 weeks that are spent by Amigo and his colleagues in preparing the practice’s patients for their very first school formal (or prom in America).

Shiva interviews a few young adults who are on the autistic spectrum as well as their parents and therapists. She mostly focuses on three young women, which is interesting because female perspectives are often overlooked in this “male-dominated” syndrome. The main subjects are 16 year old Marideth Bridges, who loves learning new facts and playing the computer, 22-year-old Jessica Sullivan who enjoys cooking and works at a bakery that employs people with autism and her best friend, 19 year old Caroline McKenzie who is studying early childhood at college and who has a boyfriend that she met at Amigo’s group sessions.

The key message in this film also doubles as a rather interesting quote form Amigo, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. The subjects are all radically different and have different hobbies, interests and degrees of communication, understanding and social-functioning. It’s a triumph though when they can all overcome these challenges to have a ball literally that is complete with music, corsages, dancing, a king and a queen.

How To Dance In Ohio is an intimate and empathetic coming-of-age story that lifts the veil on autism. The fly-on-the-wall style allows the subjects to tell their own stories and shows how they work hard to understand and be understood. It’s no mean feat and a testament to their strength, resilience and courage that their prom – a situation that most teenagers find difficult – is such a success. In all, How To Dance In Ohio is an entertaining, honest and frank look at autism and a very important, human story that every adult and child should see.

Review score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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How To Dance In Ohio premiered at Melbourne International Film Festival on August 8. It screens again on August 16. For more information and tickets please visit: http://miff.com.au/program/film/how-to-dance-in-ohio