Young adulthood can be one of the most transformative periods in a person’s life, as well as one of the most challenging. It’s a time when you develop relationships, become independent and figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. However, being a young adult also involves dealing with a lot of angst and self-doubt. In her touching documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” filmmaker Alexandra Shiva (“Stagedoor”) offers some insight on this topic by focusing on a group of teenagers and young adults from Columbus, Ohio all of whom are on the autism spectrum. With the help of clinical psychologist Emilio Amigo at his family counseling center, these individuals spend 12 weeks preparing for their first spring formal dance, learning how to improve their social and communication skills — and of course, how to dance.
Filmed in 2013 and premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “How to Dance in Ohio” gives more than a simple depiction of people with autism. Through Shiva’s sensitive direction and the film’s unobtrusive cinematography, “How to Dance in Ohio” highlights the daunting experience of breaking out of your comfort zone and how it can lead to personal growth. Nothing about this film feels manipulative or exploitative; rather, it offers viewers the chance to see both the struggles and triumphs of young people with autism.
Although the film portrays the sessions that take place at Amigo’s Family Counseling, it mostly centers around the perspectives of three young women from the group: Marideth Bridges, 16; Caroline McKenzie, 19; and Jessica Sullivan, 22. Regardless of their different ages, they each encounter difficulties in learning how to adapt to the world around them.
Marideth, a self-described introvert, spends most of her time on the computer and reading random facts in world almanacs. She also likes researching, but feels uncomfortable explaining to the camera what she is researching exactly. Though Marideth’s perseverant habits and her reluctance to interact with others are common among people with autism, the film conveys just how hard it can be to live with such a condition. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Marideth expresses to her parents at a sit-down restaurant that she might not want to have kids and wonders if she will even get married some day. It’s an emotionally stirring moment that’s guaranteed to make viewers’ hearts drop, yet it reminds the audience that Marideth’s autism doesn’t need to hinder her from living a normal life.
As a director and storyteller, Shiva does a great job of showing how people with autism are just as ambitious and open to opportunities as anyone else. For example, Caroline mentions her enrollment as a student at Columbus State Community College, her hopes of becoming an early childhood educator and her dream of traveling to Japan. Early in the film, Jessica negotiates a plan with her parents to live on her own, and she is later seen working at a bakery called Food for Good Thought for young adults on the spectrum. But much like Marideth, Caroline and Jessica undergo the stresses of social anxiety and the pressures of being perceived by others in a negative way. Caroline agonizes over dancing well at the formal and what to do if she becomes too overwhelmed to ride the public bus to class. Jessica becomes frustrated when the bakery’s owner, a psychologist named Dr. Audrey Todd, tells her that Jessica has developed a superior attitude towards her co-workers. Despite Jessica, Caroline and Marideth’s ongoing difficulties with fitting into the mainstream, the film presents their situations in a honest and respectful light. In addition, the interviews with their families showcase both the concern and support that they have for their children who go through this difficult journey every day.
While the film can be very emotional at times, there are some humorous and sweet moments as well. In one scene, Marideth and her younger sister discuss Chief Keef, the irrelevance of Soulja Boy, the turbulence of Miley Cyrus’s career and long-haired men. The sequence where Caroline and Jessica go shopping for formal dresses with their mothers is also particularly heartwarming. Not only do these clips give the documentary heart and depth, but they also illustrate how young adults with autism have the same interests and goals as any other young adult. At the actual formal, the climax of “How to Dance in Ohio,” you can see how this group has developed so quickly and overcome their initial fears in such a short amount of time. The only arguably flawed moment in this film is the inclusion of Katy Perry’s pop hit “Firework” in the credits scene. But even though “Firework” makes the ending slightly cheesy, you can’t help but feel overjoyed to watch these individuals do something that most people with autism don’t get the chance to do.