Teenage rites of passage are difficult enough when you’re “normal.” But having autism or other developmental issues brings its own set of anxieties and challenges to growing up. In Columbus, a group of young people all attend a special workshop designed to help them improve their social skills. The culmination of a 12-week program is a spring formal. How to Dance in Ohio focuses mainly on three girls as they prep for the big night.
Although the impending event and its buildup lend a narrative skeleton to the documentary, it’s mainly a slice-of-life piece. The day-to-day details of living on the spectrum come to the forefront, often to interesting effect. Pop culture is thick with stereotypes about autism, which have, if anything, grown more aggressive as autistic characters have taken more prominent roles in entertainment (e.g. The Big Bang Theory or Sherlock). This film gently nudges those preconceptions aside.
In all aspects of production, the doc is quite standard. It hangs its success on its characters, and they’re able to carry it into the realm of decency. As is usual for this kind of low-key doc, it comes alive most when it captures the little moments that are nigh-impossible to script. One girl having a minor breakdown over getting in trouble at her job illustrates the difficulty she faces in interacting with neurotypical people, and the emotional space that autism places one in.
And of course there are moments of joy as well. Once the climactic dance rolls around, it’s nice to see the characters put what they’ve learned to (more or less) good use and have a ball. In certain moments, their partying is indistinguishable from what you’d see regular teenagers doing. It’s a good reminder that our mental differences don’t have to be too great an obstacle to healthy participation in society.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2015.