“I’m wanting you to see this as a chance to face your fears to some degree.”
Life is often a matter of circumstance, and is a word capable of being both a noun and a verb. What we see and what we feel during How to Dance in Ohio shows the cruel and unfair hand so many are dealt yet gracefully endure, proving limitations only get in the way if you let them. This is a documentary about individuals on the spectrum of highly functioning Autism, rightfully painting a portrait of a purpose driven life. It could have pandered and begged for our pity, and honestly that would have still worked, only to a lesser effect. How to Dance in Ohio puts its people on an equal plain because that’s where they deserve to be, delivering a stunningly minimalist study on self-fulfillment, effortlessly capturing who and what we are all capable of being.
In Columbus, Ohio, individuals on the spectrum, from young teens all the way up to adults, are faced with a challenge. 12 weeks from the start will be a major event – an initiation of sorts – meant to serve as a stepping stone into furthering and expanding their social skills. It’s the Spring Formal, and How to Dance in Ohio is never afraid to be simple, always putting one foot in front of the other as it builds towards its finale. We follow three young ladies, all different, all experiencing the same emotions but in different ways. Marideth Bridges is the most reclusive, spending countless hours immersed in her computer. Caroline McKenzie seems the most socially aware while still facing the roadblocks of Autism. And Jessica Sullivan has her eyes set on maintaining her job and eventually moving out on her own in hopes of finding independence. They all struggle to handle their heartstrings when it comes to boys, getting glammed up for the dance, stressed about possible rejection.
Young adults are often like the primitive minds who believed in the Geocentric model, incorrectly thinking the stars and the planets and the sun revolved around Earth. The dance is a rite of passage, and comes with great pressure because at that age we think everything revolves around us. Only with time do we learn heliocentrism. Whether it’s through Marideth, Caroline, or Jessica, How to Dance in Ohio manages to be heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. We see how badly they want to be able to interact with others, can read their eyes and see the dialogue spinning cobwebs in their mind. But they can’t. There are crippling effects to Autism, and it is compared to trying to talk to somebody through a brick wall. Fear of rejection lives within us all, and while it induces dread, ignoring the negative possibilities and acting in the moment, no matter the outcome, can help us find new places.
The film can be a little thin, especially when it comes to the psychologist in charge of planning the dance and expelling the fear from his patients. And while the ending brings waves of emotions, many of them feel contrived and man-made rather than organic and captured. Those are little problems though, and How to Dance in Ohio, a HBO produced documentary, proves to be one of the more deeply personal and human films I’ve seen so far this year. Alexandra Shiva has made a movie that packs powerful insight and raw observation. Most importantly, she does not exploit her subjects, nor does she negatively affect them. That would have been easy given the material and the path. The formal is a metaphor for life, and Shiva lets these people choose whether they want to – or can – muster up the courage to dance and to live. How to Dance in Ohio is a feel-good movie with trust, thought, and an enveloping sense of empathy.
“You have to learn to interact with the world no matter who you are.”
Rating: 4 out of 5