By Matthew E. Milliken
April 11, 2015
How to Dance in Ohio is a touching new documentary about a group of high-functioning autistic teenagers and young adults who are getting ready for a formal dance.
Director Alexandra Shiva spent about three months filming psychologist Emilio Amigo and his counselors, their clients and the clients’ families as they geared up for their party. She focuses on 16-year-old Marideth, who’s happiest sitting at home with her computer, and young 20-something friends Caroline and Jessica, who are struggling respectively with her first year at community college and her job at a bakery.
In many ways, Jessica is the heart of the movie. She talks with her parents and a social worker about becoming more independent, but at times, she’s keenly aware of her limitations: She wants to move out of her family’s home, but she’d prefer to have a roommate. After showing us several awkward moments at the bakery, Shiva follows Jessica into a tense meeting with the business’s owner. The young woman bursts into tears during the conversation; afterward, while eating lunch alone, Jessica wishes that her mother was there.
Later in the movie, Jessica’s face crumples when she learns that Tommy, the young man she’d hoped would be her date to the dance, has already asked another to go with him.
Shiva films Caroline making pizza with her mother’s help while the pair discuss the daughter’s reluctance to take a bus ride by herself. In interviews with all three girls’ parents, we hear them discuss how the need to foster the children’s independence often conflicts with the desire to shelter them from potential hazards in the world at large.
Amigo, who acknowledges the tension between these goals, works with his staff to make the party fun for the autistic and Aspergers teens and adults at his practice. He tells Jessica that she can ask her would-be swain to dance with her, and he reminds Marideth to turn to a friend for comfort if she gets nervous during the dance. The staff also makes the venue more welcoming by enhancing bathroom signs and having earplugs on hand to muffle noises that might otherwise bother the clients. Family members join the effort, too, some by working at the event, many by helping to prepare clothing and makeup.
Watching How to Dance in Ohio, I found it easy to empathize with the clients as they prepared for challenges like asking people out, dancing and socializing with relative strangers. It’s easy once you try, I thought at times; also, You’ll stumble, but that’s OK, as long as you pick yourself and move on; also, You know, sometimes these things are difficult for me, too.
My favorite part of the movie came around the two-thirds mark when Jessica, Caroline and their mothers visit a dress shop to pick out gowns. These young women, so often anxious and withdrawn, take obvious pleasure in trying on the fancy clothing. “It looked gaudy on the hanger, but it’s beautiful on me,” Jessica gushes at one point.
At the end of the scene, Caroline can’t quite bring himself to do a test shimmy, which the parents and shop employees say will reassure her that the dress will stay in place at the formal. Even so, everyone’s laughing and smiling; it’s just a fun, happy moment that any viewer should enjoy.
The event itself is also fun, partly because we see how far the clients have come. It’s an extremely satisfying conclusion to a sweet story.
The credits roll over a down-tempo recording of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” I caught myself singing along with Perry’s triumphant, celebratory lyrics, and a lot of other viewers will probably feel like doing the same thing.
Author’s note: Please see the latter part of this post for details about my attendance at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is due to a generous gift from a friend. Also, although I always strive for accuracy, I did not take notes during 2015 festival screenings. I apologize in advance if I’ve muffed any dialogue, names or other details in my write-ups. MEM