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Sia’s new movie ‘Music’ is a directing misfire

Sia’s directorial debut about a teenager living with autism has been marred with controversy and seemingly mocks the very audience it seeks to target.

The movie, released in February 2021, introduces a teenager called Music (Maddie Ziegler) who finds herself in the care of her half sister Zu ( Kate Hudson), a newly sober drug dealer, after her grandmother passes away.

The premise of the movie is promising on paper, with the intention of strengthening family bonds, overcoming personal adversities, and raising awareness to the autistic community. However, this is overshadowed by the execution of the movie, both in the script and in the casting of actors.

The movie starts with Music dancing to Sia’s new song; her jaw slack, shoulders hunched, teeth tucked and wide eyes dazed and unfocussed.

To me, the bright flashing lights and colours that plague the movie in sporadic scenes offers a confusing directorial style and does nothing to move the plot forward other than to show that the actress is a good dancer and Sia is a good singer.

The body language used by the actress, which sees her gurning, grimacing and mumbling through her scenes, has been described by the autistic community as deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms neurotypical people often employ when bullying autistic and disabled people for the way they move.

As Maddie Ziegler is not autistic herself, the exaggerated mannerisms she adopts when playing this character creates an uncomfortable watch, at best.

Of course, I don’t think the blame should be solely on the actress herself as she was only 14 when they started filming. Rather, I think it is Sia’s directorial discretion to cast a neurotypical person to act in such a way that should be scrutinised. Especially considering many actors living with autism said they would have been happy to have acted in the movie on short notice.

Although it is understood that the view of fiction favours the premise of acting a role of people different from themselves, I think the sensitive issues the film explores creates a distressing experience for the community it hopes to represent.

The lack of disclaimer detailing the distressing scenes also meant that the autistic community was blindsided by the triggering content.

The movie also seems to focus more on the half sister, Zu, as she learns to take care of Music with the help of her neighbour and love interest, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr).

Zu is not fit for the responsibility of caring for Music, but as the neighbour takes an interest in their lives, she finds enough incentive to stick around.

The focus on the half sister means that Music has no character arc and stays the same throughout the entire movie as Zu evolves into a better person for taking care of someone living with autism.

I find it hard not to cringe at the execution of this plot point as it quite blatantly suggests autistic people are a burden in society; even to the people designed to love them.

Watching the film, it seems clear to me that Music is only used as a plot device in which she embodies all of the autistic stereotypes with no other personality traits.

In a similar way, Ebo seems to only exist to reinforce immigrant stereotypes and impart his wisdom so that Zu can better herself.

As the movie continues, a restraint scene becomes a main point of contention. The movie shows Leslie Odom Jr’s character, Ebo, placing Music in a prone restraint position.

This is one of the most dangerous forms of restraints that have resulted in over a hundred deaths of children living with autism.

The scene, which had no warning at the beginning of the movie, was met with harsh backlash from the community as viewers watch Ziegler’s character being pinned down and forcibly restrained in a facedown position.

In the shockingly explicit scene, the movie goes on to show Ebo teaching Zu how to jump on top of Music and hold her down as she panics.

I believe Sia’s directorial decision to use this outdated practice is tone deaf at best and reinforces dangerous practices that have harmed the autistic community. The movie shows no implication that this is an inappropriate approach when helping an autistic person.

I find it hard to believe the words, “I am crushing her with my love,” is a line that made the cut in the film as it undoubtably glorifies the dangerous act and creates unwanted exposure to the out dated practice.

As the movie nears it’s end, with Zu discovering herself as a newly sober drug addict who braves the responsibility of caring for an autistic person and Music having progressed no more than when she first came onto screen, my overall assumption suggests that Music is just an embodiment of autistic stereotypes as it depicts autism as something “suffered” by autistic people, but even more so by those who are “brave” enough to love them.

Although Sia’s intentions for the movie may have been pure, I find the execution and directing style used in the making of this film means that, at best, the movie sets an insensitive and unsettling tone.

Written by Mardi Borg

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