Sia, the Australian singer-songwriter, has been working on a feature film as a director and co-writer since 2015. She announced the movie at a film festival that year, and has been working on it ever since.
What’s the film about?
It is a film about a newly sober drug dealer called Kazu, or Zu, who finds herself the sole guardian of her younger half-sister, Music. Music is autistic and nonverbal. The film follows the sisters as Zu struggles to look after them both, and gets help from their neighbour Ebo. The narrative flickers between the harsh reality of the character’s lives, and fantasy musical sequences made to explore the mind of Music.
Here’s the trailer (content warning: restraint):
What’s the creation story?
The film, depending on which of Sia’s interviews you watch, was supposedly written for Maddie Ziegler. Which is no surprise, they have worked together for a long time now, with Ziegler effectively being Sia’s protege.
The film was written by Sia and Dallas Clayton, a writer who based the film on a short story he had written in 2007. Originally not intended as a musical, the budget was $4 million. However, across the 4 years of its creation, the plan developed and the film was made into a musical. Subsequently, the budget shot up to $16 million.
The film was actually shot in mid-2017, when its main actress was merely 14 years old and was set for release in October 2019. This got delayed, however, to mid-2020, and then finally the release was set for early 2021.
When is the release?
The release in most countries is now set for early February. But in Australia, the film came out on the 14th of January 2021. Since then, it’s pulled in $446,000 in the box office.
Who’s in the film?
Aside from Maddie, there are two other well-known names in the film, with Kate Hudson as Kazu, and Leslie Odom Jr (made famous by his appearance in the hit musical Hamilton).
Why is it controversial?
When the teaser trailer came out, it did not go down well. The disabled community, and many others, were unhappy with a lot of the choices surrounding the movie.
One of the aspects of the movie that has made people a little sceptical of the movie is that the team hasn’t cast someone on the spectrum to play the lead role.
In response to this, Sia did report that the project did originally have an ASD actor on board as the main role, but that they got overwhelmed. This contradicts other interviews where, as mentioned earlier, Sia said the role was written for Maddie.
When this news came out, plenty of autistic actors responded to Sia’s tweet saying that they’d have been available, even at short notice, if it meant an ASD actor being given the role. In response, Sia tweeted one of them to say ‘maybe you’re just a bad actor’.
However, even if the story about originally casting an ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) actor is true, people are still unhappy as it suggests that rather make allowances for the disabled actor, Sia chose to instead recast.
On top of this, the use of Maddie Ziegler as Music meant her learning autistic traits. In interviews, Sia has revealed that she ‘taught [Ziegler] the nuances and ticks’ of autism, which she learnt from someone else.
2. The advice the film gives
In the film, as it features someone caring for an autistic person, the behaviours and events should be things which viewers can learn from. Instead, there is a scene in the film in which Music is having an autistic meltdown and Zu is advised by Ebo to restrain and hold Music down. This isn’t recommended to help someone having a meltdown, whether they are on the spectrum or having a panic attack, or anything similar.
3. The musical scenes
Some people have reacted to the fantasy musical element of the movie as ridiculous, but more importantly, a lot of them involve bright, psychedelic colours. These colours make them hard for certain people on the spectrum to watch, due to sensory processing disorders.
Sia has responded to these critiques of her film poorly, to say the least. She has tweeted an onslaught of angry responses, which have since been deleted. One of these was just a series of expletives.
She has also been saying less than amicable comments in interviews, describing ‘people like Music’ as ‘low-functioning’, an out-dated term. Additionally, she has said that nobody at Music’s ‘functioning level’ would be able to be on Twitter (where most of the critiquing is taking place).
This kind of language is no longer used to discuss ‘levels’ of autism, as it perpetuates the notion of ‘looking autistic’, and that autism is linear rather than the vast spectrum it truly is.
As if that wasn’t enough, in an interview with Variety, the interviewer compares nonverbal people on the spectrum, like Music, to ‘inanimate objects’, and Sia agreed.
Sia in an interview with Variety about a month ago. If this doesn’t absolutely disgust you, something is very wrong. pic.twitter.com/35q3Kpx42P
— Clara Kirby-McIntosh | she/they BLM ACAB (@clarakirbymc) December 21, 2020
5. Working with Autism Speaks
Sia also claimed when defending her movie, that she worked with multinational autism charity Autism Speaks. However, most in the disability community do not associate with said charity, as they have been known to discuss ‘curing’ autism.
The general public’s opinions
Whilst various media outlets such as Cosmo, NME, Variety, and even The Guardian have tackled both reviewing the movie and the issues around it, what are people within the community’s opinions? And what about others?
In order to find out, we spoke to people on the spectrum, their partners, their parents, and others. This included a post in a Brighton based organisation’s forum, mASCot. The charity is for parents with autistic children, and many of the parents are autistic themselves.
“I fail to see why Sia felt the need to cast her ‘muse’ in this role when there are #actuallyautistic actors that could have played the role and who could have added authenticity, credence and avoided some of the tropes played out in this production.” – Anon, mASCot member
“Seeing the trailer from the film and the tweets Sia previously tweeted really hurt me and made me feel like less of a person with my autism. The fact that Sia is only making this film for a neurotypical audience instead of supposedly being a film for the autistic community is disrespectful. She shouldn’t get away with this rubbish and should properly own up and remove the film. No matter what money she loses. The film is about her music, not us.” – 23 yr old with ASD
“As an agent who represents both actors with autism and neurotypical ones, I know 100% that some actors on the spectrum could have played this role.” – Anon, mASCot member
“My 14-year-old autistic daughter feels quite strongly about this. She has had several unsuccessful attempts at auditioning for school productions and never got in. Her perception is that she just isn’t “cool enough” for a part. Or because teachers think she is “difficult.”” – Anon, mASCot
“I haven’t seen a film myself, but the subject came up before in media where it was discussed why autistic people are being played by neurotypical actors most of times. I personally would not see it as controversy at all, it’s up to the producer to make the choice what they believe would work best?” – Anon, mASCot
“Lots of issues but one of the biggest is that not working with an autistic actor means Maddie relies on a very stereotyped representation of autism which is clichéd and reinforces stereotypes. Her scene depicting a prone restraint during a meltdown is very unhelpful as for many this would worsen the distress and is a dangerous method of restraint when carried out by trained professionals let alone by anyone who sees the movie and thinks it is appropriate.” – Anon, mASCot
“I’ve been with my partner who has ASD long enough to be aware of the severity of what Sia has done. Not only has she taken away a role from an autistic actor, and given it to an able-bodied person, but she’s also been derogatory towards the disability, anyone with ASD, and promotes a significant amount of wrong information about ASD.” – University student, partner of someone on the spectrum
We also perused the web for other people’s opinions, and found the following videos!