Should You Hold On To Independent Lens's Best And Most Beautiful Things?
Or is one non-neurotypical young woman's journey in fact...too typical?
High-Profile Show Attempted: Garrett Zevgetis's Best And Most Beautiful Things on Independent Lens.
Subject: Per IL's press site: "Join Michelle Smith, an unforgettable young woman who is legally blind and on the autism spectrum, on a journey of self-discovery that celebrates outcasts everywhere."
How Far I Expected To Get: Based on that by-numbers description, which could have come out of an indie-docu Mad Libs? Not far -- but on the other hand, Independent Lens features can often start out almost like parodies of themselves, while subtly putting your hand into the hands of their subjects; the cumulative effect is that of finishing a good story with a new friend. The best example of the phenomenon is Marwencol, a well-shot and generous look at one man's comeback from a brain injury that takes an interesting twist about two-thirds of the way through.
Alas, many many other examples exist, and the Best And Most variation on the twist isn't really a variation. Or a twist.
What Did It: Michelle is balking at attending her younger brother's basketball game, explaining that her visual impairment means she can't actually see which player is Jordn ([sic, I am saddened to report); the experience is merely "loud offending sounds" and her feeling left out of what everyone else is enjoying.
Well, Michelle, welcome to the world.
Zevgetis's CV consists of this and a documentary short from 2010, so he may have yet to develop an effective ear for sympathetic subjects, and Michelle isn't. She's not an asshole; she's just...a late adolescent, and much more typical for that than she or the film would like to think, irrespective of her challenges. Will Michelle struggle more than most of us to find gainful employment that creates an independent life for her, thanks to her sight impairment? Yes. If she does find a job, will she take more time to adjust to the bullshit vagaries of working life -- taking direction; hewing to organizing principles not her own -- than an employee not on the spectrum? Probably. She relates a tale of getting fired from the first job she'd gotten, some kind of post-office clerical position, during the training.
But while the film seems to want us to feel for her in her frustration, the firing sounds justified to me, because the issue isn't necessarily her autism, the ways she's not neurotypical; it's the ways she is for a woman around 20, believing she's the star of everyone else's movie, focused on nurturing her own individuality. That isn't every 20-year-old, of course, but it's a lot of them -- it was this one, certainly -- and Michelle confronting a former teacher about quashing that uniqueness in her gets the same reaction from me. (And from the teacher, who notes in a talking-head that, thanks to her sensory issues, Michelle is particularly ill-equipped to understand concepts like dues-paying and perspective -- literally.) In other words, Michelle's kind of entitled, which after a fashion makes her utterly average for a late adolescent.
It doesn't make her terribly compelling television, however. Michelle seems like a bright woman, and like she'll figure it out and find her way, but -- perhaps because I've worked on the internet for two decades, where obsessive awkwardness and references to getting picked on in middle school are hardly unusual -- Best And Most thinks she's a much more special snowflake than I'm seeing.
Worth Taking Another Run At It? If you're heartened by the idea that she's not that special -- that you know many Michelles, and they've mostly got their training wheels off -- then sure? It's apparent that, later on, Best And Most aims to give us pause with Michelle's interest in some kind of fetish/BDSM play, but: same problem. It's a little consenting-adults kink; the idea that it's notable that she's into that because she's on the spectrum is rather condescending, IMO. Best of luck and leather to this young lady, but I'm good.
What did you think?