Sundance 2015: 'How to Dance in Ohio' Brings Tears of Pure Joy
by Ethan Anderton
February 2, 2015
Years ago, the documentary American Teen focused on a group of teenagers living in Indiana, focusing on their everyday high school lives. This time a new documentary heads back to the Midwest with How to Dance in Ohio. However, the young adults at the center of this documentary aren't your ordinary teens, because they all have varying autistic spectrum disorders. The film from Alexandra Shiva turns the camera on these socially anxious teens as they prepare for their first spring formal. This is something that can be daunting for teens who don't have to deal with autism, and with these kids it could be disastrous.
But what could have easily been a sad look at the effects of this disorder actually turns out to be one of the most uplifting, moving documentaries I have ever seen. The film takes place in Columbus, Ohio, following young adults who are part of a very impressive, progressive counseling center for families who have kids diagnosed with autism. Dr. Emilio Amigo runs the program which helps high-functioning clients begin to adapt to a hopeful life of independence and self-sufficiency. The spring formal is the centerpiece as we watch the program work its magic, and it includes all the awkwardness of adolescence, from learning to dance to asking out a date to getting all dressed up for the big night.
Our primary subjects are a 16-year old girl named Marideth Bridges, an apprehensive, encyclopedia of knowledge accumulated from reading various almanacs and reference books. She takes solace in her computer, and would much rather be left to her own devices rather than venturing out into the rest of the world. For those unfamiliar with autism, she's about as close to the depiction of Rain Man as we get. There's also Jessica Sullivan, a 22-year old who has progressed greatly towards living life on her own; she even has a job at a local bakery with a specialty in hiring and helping high-functioning people on the autism spectrum. And then there's the precocious Caroline McKenzie, making her way through college.
It's refreshing that our three main characters are females with varying degrees of autism, mostly because men are more frequently diagnosed with the varying disorders. It gives a whole new perspective and illustration of the effects of autism than we've previously seen. In addition, following these teens on the cusp of adulthood just further goes to explain how this disorder effects the daily lives of those afflicted by it. For every success, there's a scary moment for our subjects, the most heartbreaking of which comes when Jessica gets reprimanded at work for her questionable interaction with employees, causing her to break down in tears, struggling to understand the sometimes tough to navigate work environment. It's just an obstacle that comes with the territory of autism, and it's frustrating and moving all at once. The tears will flow.
But thankfully, there are more tears of happiness and triumph. Whether it's seeing longtime friends Jessica and Caroline try on dresses in a sequence that's just as entertaining as any upbeat romantic comedy montage, but far more inspiring and moving. A smile will be permanently fixed upon your face as you see these young adults come of age before your very eyes. Our main female subjects aren't the only ones who take the spotlight, as plenty of young males are interviewed and highlighted throughout as well. It's amazing the kind of intimate access Shiva and her crew were given, especially considering how anxious these teens can get. The parents also offer some fantastic insight into living with and around autism.
How to Dance in Ohio is a rousing, affecting documentary that is innocent, pure and just lovely. I honestly can't remember being so overwhelmed with happiness and pride for people that I had no relationship with in real life. In addition to the wonderful feelings brought upon by this doc, it's also enlightening and educational about a disorder that many people still don't fully understand. Much like anybody, all these young adults want is to be understood, and in kind understand those around them. How to Dance in Ohio is a must-see, inspirational film that will open your eyes and warm your heart.