Last week we saw singer-songwriter Sia make her directorial debut. Instead of fanfare, she was met with outrage — and rightfully so. The film follows Kate Hudson’s character Zu, a recovering alcoholic charged with taking care of her neurodivergent younger sister after the unexpected death of their grandmother. The sister, named Music, is played by Dance Moms’ Maddy Ziegler. Ziegler has worked on many projects with Sia, with “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” being their best-known collaborations. It is important to note that Ziegler was cast by Sia to play an autistic character, though Ziegler herself is not autistic.
That neither the lead nor the director were autistic or had any professional experience with autism troubled many people when the film was announced. Instead of taking in the criticism, Sia fought back on Twitter. One autistic actress explained in a tweet that several autistic actors – including herself – could have acted in Ziegler’s place and further criticized the fact that autistic people were excluded from a film about autism; Sia responded by tweeting “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” Many members of the neurodivergent community chimed in, talking about how damaging and hurtful these portrayals of neurodivergent people can be, with most criticisms falling on deaf ears. Ironic, given the fact that the film was supposed to be Sia’s love letter to caregivers and people with disabilities.
The release of the film was met with just as much outrage as the trailer. Firstly, the film itself was nothing to be proud of. The story is predictable, the characters are underdeveloped and the pacing is messy. The only time Sia’s talents shine is with the songs and set designs. And that’s not even addressing the myriad of problems in the film. The film, which is supposed to be about autism, does not follow Ziegler’s autistic character. Instead, it focuses on her older sister, Zu. The film uses a character from a marginalized group as a plot device to help the main protagonist get over her issues and overcome her past.
This tone-deaf decision isn’t even the most offensive thing in the movie. Lyrics about magic minds and failing bodies are incredibly offensive, since they perpetuate ableist rhetoric. The film’s upbeat and overly happy songs clash with the serious subject that it has taken on. Had the production team taken a more solemn approach in addressing issues in the film, the songs wouldn’t feel so insincere and out-of-place.
The most glaring problem of the film was the portrayal of autism onscreen. Ziegler’s portrayal makes the film almost unwatchable. Her character cannot speak more than few phrases, and Ziegler is always seen grinning widely or with exaggerated facial expressions. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch, since the exaggerated performance feels more like mockery than a portrayal. Ziegler clearly felt the same, since the teenager had a breakdown on set because she feared her portrayal was going to be seen as offensive.
Given all of this, it’s a little mind-blowing that the film was given a green light. The film industry as a whole must start doing better. Ableist portrayals of autistic people need to be retired. And most importantly, the industry needs to take into account the voices of people in the neurodivergent community, who, since the trailer dropped, have been adamant about how harmful this film actually is.