Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 47 minutes, Director – Sia
Recovering alcoholic Zu (Kate Hudson) finds herself looking after her autistic sister Music (Maddie Ziegler) after their grandmother (Mary Kay Place)
There’s been much discussion, and undeniable controversy, around the representation of autism in Australian singer-songwriter Sia’s feature directorial debut, and much discussion about the fact that there has been much discussion around it. However, autism is very much a side element of her film’s narrative, although a very key one. For the most part we follow Zu (Kate Hudson), a reckless recovering alcoholic drug dealer. After her grandmother (Mary Kay Place) suddenly passes away she finds herself taking care of her younger sister Music (frequent dancer for Sia, Maddie Ziegler). While Grandma viewed Music as “a magical little girl” Zu finds it difficult to cope with her high-end autism and almost instantaneously calls a local Mental Health department to see if they do “pick-up”. With the help of neighbour Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr) – “the smiliest person on Earth” – she learns to gradually get used to Music’s behaviours and how to take care of her.
Music has her routine known by everyone in not just the apartment building she lives in but almost everyone on the street that makes up her routine daily walk. On one of these Ebo explains to Zu about Music’s routine and how she views the world. She wears headphones to avoid sensory overload from the potential loud noises around her. Sensory overload which would definitely be caused by the various dreamlike escape sequences that occur throughout the film. At various intervals we get a glimpse into Music’s mind. A technicolour world much like a classic Hollywood sound stage, bright lights, flashy colours and loud music formed by writer-director Sia. The areas are comfortable and everything seems to be soft and protected; wrapped up, covered or locked – her apartment appears to be like a padded, graffitied asylum during a brief glimpse. Such moments don’t exactly provide much plot detail or advancement, and after a handful begin to lose their style, simply feeling as if they’re there to push the run-time on a bit.
One thing that remains very much the same is Ziegler’s caricature style performance – which many have understandably labelled as not just offensive but potentially damaging. While there are elements, particularly early on in the film as she finds the dead body of her grandmother, that seem to be aiming for something from the right place these are very few and infrequent. It simply feels as if the film has been misinformed or hasn’t done enough research – although Sia has spoken about working with controversial group Autism Speaks on the film – instead of coming from a place of malice. The biggest issues come in the third act, when things truly feel in place to be briefly rushed through and just there to extend the run-time that bit more, when the subject of autism comes more into play simply for emotional narrative beats that advance Zu and make her look better. This use simply feels lazy and misjudged, completely removing anything good that might have been built up over the course of the film, and reversing much of the way the viewer views Hudson’s character and the film as a whole – some decisions certainly seem as if the film hasn’t understood itself and as if they were made just to force the laboured points of “love is complicated”.
Most of what we see from Zu involves her dealing with the complications of her life. She’s trying to escape from her role as a drug dealer, working for self-inflated boss Ben Schwartz, and owes multiple debts to people and is still struggling not to get caught up with the authorities while she’s still recovering from her addiction while on probation. It’s the typical story of trying to get back on track, as she tries to escape to her paradise of Costa Rica, of course she’s only looking out for herself at the start of the film. This plotline and style mostly emerges during the second half of the film as the plot actually comes into play more and we see more of Zu and her regular life, simply dragging Music along to grunt and gurn in the background instead of growing and learning how to get on and care for her as was initially case. Things quickly become confused and wires are crossed as the narrative and focuses of the film become muddled and seemingly uncertain as to where they are going to go, relying more and more on music and dance sequences to get out of a half-dug situation. There’s even less time for Tig Nataro to occasionally appear as a spirit-lacking kids TV show host, the most entertaining thing about the film; actually managing to raise a laugh or two – “Good luck everyone on your mission, whatever it is”.
As everything eventually comes together – sometimes just starting to form in the extremely off-colour 25 minutes – there are ideas that are broken and elements that are pushed far aside and the whole things begins to feel lacking. Key points appear to be rushed or almost lazily written, with the detail being left for the narrative lacking, music-video-like breaks to push the soundtrack – when the film first entered production it was apparently not meant to be a musical, which in its current form would likely make it a short film. With everything that happens the final piece simply feels like a misjudged extended music video with some uneven drama sandwiched in-between.
Much like its handling of autism Music is an overall misjudged film. While on some occasions its mostly bearable plot-wise, when it begins to use autism for emotional advancement of other characters it loses itself and seems to forget everything it had initially built when not delving into frequent music video breaks.