Saturday 22 November 2014

Be with Me (2013)

Director: Michael Terrill
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
Be with Me is really getting itself seen. Just here in Arizona this year, it's already played the Phoenix Film Festival and the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and it's about to screen again at the Arizona event for Filmstock, as part of their Fresh Off the Docs selection. On a wider level, it's played a lot more than those and won awards during its festival run such as the Best Drama Documentary (Short) at DocuFest 2013 in Atlanta. That's quite an achievement for something that runs 44 minutes or roughly half a feature. That's too short to fill a slot on its own but far too much to fit alongside other films in a balanced set of shorts. It was one of three Arizona Documentary Shorts at the Phoenix Film Festival and it'll be one of three docs in its Filmstock set. It has notably high production values so it looks slick, courtesy of local talent like Tommy Schaeffer on sound and Keegan Ead in the editing room and on second unit. Admittedly he isn't local any more, but he was at the time; this merely underlines that our loss is Vermont's gain.

There's a lot to like here, in a film that would surely bring tears even if the filmmakers hadn't clearly tried to accentuate that; even in the introductory passage, there are textbook catches to the throat to trigger a reaction. Michael Terrill, who wrote and directed, has no prior credits at IMDb but does a very capable job here nonetheless. He has a story that aches to be told, he introduces it well and lets it flow well from that grounding into detail through example. There's very little input from the filmmakers, just an odd question here and there, so the production is notably unobtrusive, however much the interview subjects are posed just so for the camera. It builds on a curve, so that as we move into the story we gradually accelerate to its end, meaning that it's hard not to get caught up in the sweep of the accomplishment at its heart. The goal of the picture is to provide hope to others who might find themselves in a similar situation and its technical aspects aid that to no small degree. It's unmistakeably a powerful piece.

The narrative begins at the point the Cairns family discover that their second child, James Cairns Jr, or JR for short, is different. His sister Shelby was bright, inquisitive and precocious, but he's the opposite: quiet, introverted and 'all over the place', in the words of his mother, Lori. He didn't talk much but he cried a lot. Communication was very difficult and he avoided eye contact. Nowadays, it's clear what that means, but at the time it needed JR's cousin, only three months older, to come over for an event for the family to see the obvious discrepancies. So they sought a medical opinion and the diagnosis they got from the Phoenix Children's Hospital was that he was both mildly to moderately autistic and mildly to moderately mentally retarded. Lori and Jim Cairns were open to that as they could see that something was wrong; but they did not buy into the conclusion, that he would spend his entire childhood in his bedroom and be confined to an institution by the age of seventeen. So they did something about it and we have a story.
The catch is that, even though this is a true story told through interviews with people who were there as it happened, there's nothing to back it up as being anything more than one woman's personal belief. The majority of the film is told by Lori Cairns herself, effectively expounding her own perspective on her son's life, which is promptly enforced by a few family members and family friends, notably excluding JR's dad, Jim Cairns, who is only there at the very beginning. The only professional insight is restricted to a brief segment in the middle, when a therapist and a speech pathologist add comments. The former was hired by the Cairns to help their son and I believe that the latter was too. What's more, Lori Cairns co-produced the film and other family members were also actively involved in its production, so it's impossible to see any objectivity or impartiality at all. This is a message rather than an exploration, if not an outright piece of propaganda from a woman whose reasons for making it are not entirely clear.

Now, that doesn't mean that the message isn't valid; it's just that what we see is clearly one side of the story with any other potential side conveniently excluded. While it may or may not be telling that her ex-husband is mostly absent from proceedings, I was especially concerned to hear so little from JR himself. He is in the film and he dominates the last few scenes, playing golf and driving a car, but he never really talks to us through the camera about his experiences. Based on what we see, there's no doubt that the use of ABA (applied behaviour analysis), as pioneered by Ole Ivar Løvaas, a UCLA clinical psychologist, had some effect on their autistic son and it may well have been responsible for his ability to function as an adult. As this ends, he's about to graduate from high school and go to college to study journalism; he has strong potential for the future, far beyond what the Phoenix Children's Hospital suggested could be possible, but there's no data to back up why. It might be entirely the ABA, but it might not.

Certainly the notable absence of independent professional opinion, whether in agreement or in dissent, is what lessens a potentially important documentary into a slickly produced home video. Having personally turned a number of 'disorders' to my advantage and played a large part in the development of someone in a similar situation to JR, I'd love to see the documentary that this isn't, one that includes data to back it up. The direction Lori Cairns chose for her son stemmed from a book by an anonymous author writing as Catherine Maurice, Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family's Triumph Over Autism. Many of the concerns I found in what Lori did are echoed in an anonymous review of that book at Amazon by a high functioning autistic adult. He or she was worried by the way autism is treated in the book as 'a fate worse than death' and how the writer 'speaks of dragging her children kicking and screaming out of autism, forcing them to be normal'. This manifests itself continually here too, with 'weird' consistently used as a synonym of 'wrong'.
In fact, the very title comes from a comment by Ann Monahan, JR's aunt. 'I know you like where you're at,' she thought to JR as a child. 'I know it's fun there for you but I want you in my world. I want you to be with me.' That's entirely understandable but it sounds very selfish when you write it down. Lori even admits it at points. He's 'weird right now' but he hopefully won't be forever. She refuses to let him do anything that she perceives as 'inappropriate for his age', so he can't line up cars together or watch The Little Mermaid. I often felt acutely uncomfortable during scenes where, to quote Monahan, Lori 'cared enough to be what others would consider cruel.' It raised connections to me with boot camps to turn kids back to Jesus or the 'cures' that turn gay kids straight. It wasn't the shock it should have been to discover that Løvaas, who is generally seen in a very positive light for his successful work with autistic children, also worked with kids who were gender-variant earlier in his career, perhaps leading the first to commit suicide as an adult.

I don't want to talk down the achievement of the Cairns family and I'm happy that JR's future is open, but this is a huge issue that's worthy of a deep documentary rooted in what we've learned over the last few decades and this isn't it. I want to hear directly from the autistic children who grew up going through ABA treatments and other similar techniques. I want to hear from the professionals who do this for a living and qualified critics of their accomplishments. I want to see the scientific data rather than just the memories. I want to hear from the people who were dismissed as negative in this narrative: the support groups who apparently don't want to hear about the progress of others and the professionals who saw what Lori was doing as inappropriate. I want to hear from the families who didn't attempt to change their autistic kids at all, or who did so in a less direct manner, to see the differing results. The Cairns are part of that but they aren't all of it. This is slick, professional stuff, worthy of a view, but it's not that documentary.

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