Why Sia’s Movie Just Didn’t Do Right By People With Autism

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Sia’s movie ‘Music’ has been receiving some pretty widespread criticism since its release.

It’s the Australian singer’s directorial debut and it’s controversial because of the way it portrays autism.

So, what are the biggest problems with ‘Music’, and what should filmmakers be doing when they’re approaching topics like autism and neurodiversity?

What’s Going On With ‘Music’?

‘Music’ was actually getting dragged online a long time before it even hit cinemas.

There were questions around whether or not Sia had adequately researched autism for the character, Music. But there were also questions around whether or not the part had just been written specifically so Maddie Ziegler could star in her movie.

Sia claimed on Twitter that she had tried working with a young girl with non-verbal autism at one point, but both her and Ziegler have stated from as far back as 2015 that the part was written specifically for the young dancer.

But when it comes to the actual movie, what are the issues?

Well, for a start, the film isn’t really about its title character.

Clem Bastow: “The film isn’t really about Music, it’s about Kate Hudson’s character, Zu. You know this character of Music is just sort of an obstacle, or a kind of tool, for her big sister to improve her life so as she becomes more tolerant of Music, she becomes a better person.”

The film is also broken up with these musical scenes and big dance numbers set to Sia tracks where Maddie Ziegler suddenly becomes her usual dancing self.

It’s kind of ambiguous what they’re meant to mean, but Clem said they can come off as pretty offensive.

CB: “It’s this kind of classic view of autism being this tragedy of the person that’s trapped inside and if only we could free them. How can we help them to be normal basically, which thankfully a lot of people are moving away from now.”

The ‘Music’ Casting

For a lot of people with autism, Ziegler being cast as a neurodiverse character was a problem in and of itself.

Clem told me she doesn’t necessarily believe that actors without autism can’t play these characters, but in this case, Ziegler’s performance just doesn’t hit the mark.

CB: “There are aspects to the way that she portrays Music which are really true to life, autistic people do experience those things. It’s just that the sort of sum of the parts is uncomfortable. I think again the problem is that in order for those performances by non-autistic actors to be authentic, it requires so much care and prep and people are not prepared I think to put that work in.”

So, what does a thoughtful and authentic portrayal of autism look like on screen?

Clem told me there are great examples, and film and TV creators do seem to be becoming way more savvy around these topics in general.

Kayla Cromer’s character and performance in ‘Everything’s Going To Be Ok’ was applauded for being really ground-breaking by TV critics and people with autism because she’s a fully-formed main character being played by an autistic actor, and those are exactly the kinds of representations that have been missing.

CB: “I would like to see more stories that celebrate autistic people, and autistic characters that just happen to be autistic so that’s not the sort of only thing they’re bringing to the table. I think we’ve got a way to go with neurodiverse characters being able to have other attributes.”

The Takeaway

As much as Sia may have defended Music, it seems like it’s fallen short of whatever it was aiming for and it’s also failed a lot of autistic people who have criticised it as either disappointing or downright offensive.

But there are other examples that should be upheld as a standard for depictions of autistic characters and with any luck, the failures of this movie will just reinforce those lessons in the future.