Sia’s film ‘Music’ fails to represent autism

The movie fumbles every chance it gets to portray autism, and shouldn’t be watched at all.

By Anna Kochman

It’s unsettling to watch Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical, non-disabled performer, contort her face and limbs in a mockery of a disability. But that’s the opening scene of the controversial new film “Music,” directed by singer-songwriter Sia.

Ziegler’s titular character Music has autism and is nonverbal, which isn’t received well by her newly-sober sister Zu, who must care for Music after their grandmother dies. The movie chronicles Zu’s emotional and mental progress through recovery, using Music as a crutch to advance the plot.

The film is characterized by a simple binary: when Music is happy, she is ethereal, walking down her street and beaming sunshine and joy into the lives of her neighbors and friends. And when Music is upset, she’s a terror, puppeteered by Sia and dramatized by Ziegler, who wreaks havoc on Zu’s life and the lives of every innocent bystander in her wake.

This is, of course, difficult to watch. For viewers who have never met or interacted with an autistic person, it begs the question: Is this one-dimensional portrayal of autism accurate?

For Hattie Bartlett, an autistic MU sophomore, it’s an egregious misrepresentation of the autism community.

“While it’s harder to control our emotions… it’s not that we’re just like some Jekyll and Hyde kind of creature where it’s just a sudden transformation. There are reasons why we have meltdowns,” Bartlett said. “I definitely think she was made into a caricature.”

Some of the problematic aspects of the film might have been solved had Sia cast an autistic person in the role of Music. Ziegler, who was just 14 when “Music” was filmed, isn’t at fault, though she ineptly mimics the gestures and sounds that a nonverbal autistic person might use to communicate. No, the blame is on Sia, who issued a lackluster Twitter apology to the autism community for the inaccurate casting and later deactivated her Twitter account.

Bartlett believes it’s a moot point.

“I don’t think [Sia] would’ve ever considered casting an autistic actor,” she said.

Beyond the film’s problematic treatment of autism is the fact that it just… isn’t a good movie.

Sia desperately wants “Music” to be something of an art film. She injects dance cutscenes with garish costumes and settings throughout. Apparently, this was intended to represent the way Music perceives the world, but it comes off as a strange attempt to revitalize an otherwise dull movie. Moreover, the scenes contain intense visuals and lighting that could potentially be triggering to the very community the movie intends to represent.

Zu is unlikable as a character, treating Music with utter disrespect and acting out as if she’s a child. Her lack of empathy is astounding. It doesn’t seem that Zu really grows throughout the movie, either — instead, she struggles until the very end.

Other critiques of the film include its portrayal of physical restraint on Music, as well as a scene in which Music appears to wear cornrows and Blackface.

“The movie is not only harmful for autistic people, but it’s also directly harmful for Black people,” Bartlett said.

“Music” is already facing the criticism it deserves — it was awarded multiple Golden Globes nominations, which were followed by public outrage and incredibly poor critical reception. Online discourse has caused the film to fade from the limelight, even in the first week after its US release.

Bartlett feels that Sia’s poor handling of what could have been an informative and emotional film merits this backlash.

“She deserves what’s coming to her.”

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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