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Movie Review

Look at autism sings by playing it straight

Email|Print| Text size + By Janice Page
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2007

Bostonians were talking about autism long before it was trendy. Thanks to high-profile local organizations such as the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, this disorder has been a "cause celeb" around here for many years.

Now it's seemingly everywhere, diagnosed in about one in 150 children, and Jenny McCarthy just wrote a book about it.

Time for "Autism: The Musical."

Don't be afraid. As flip and gaudy as that title might sound, this spare little movie is actually one of the most candid, down-to-earth, organically inspirational documentaries you'll ever see.

Directed by Tricia Regan ("Soldiers Pay"), the film follows the lives of five autistic children in Los Angeles, where an extraordinary woman named Elaine Hall is determined to feature them in an original stage production. Hall calls her mission the Miracle Project, and she brings to it skills honed professionally as an acting coach, writer, performer, and educator, and, personally, as the mother of an autistic boy.

Given that the setting is LA, you might expect Hollywood polish. But Hall and her cast seem as regular as they are special. And Regan, who also shot and co-produced the film, wisely delivers an unsentimental, simply photographed chronicle of the autism epidemic that doesn't try to show too much or conceal the rough places.

In mounting their stage production - an amazing undertaking for kids who frequently have issues with chaos and communication - the people in this movie fail about as often as they succeed. They prop each other up and they tear each other down. They laugh, cry, yell, hit, hug. The hug is clearly the hardest part for some.

It isn't until well into the documentary that Regan reveals that musician Stephen Stills is the father of one 10-year-old cast member. Another director might have exploited that fact; here it seems almost an unwanted aside.

As in "Mad Hot Ballroom" and other recent kid-focused, artistically-inclined documentaries, what happens onstage is only a small fraction of the point in "Autism: The Musical." That's why it will have audiences cheering long before the final act.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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