Written by: Robin C. Farrell | February 17th, 2022
Let Me Be Me (Dan Crane/Katie Taber, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Let Me Be Me opens in the present with Kyle Westphal, an aspiring fashion designer, preparing for a runway show. As he in voiceover admits that “getting to this moment was not easy,” we are propelled back in time into a mix of footage old, new, and in-between, personal and general, highlighting the recent history and hardships of families with autistic children: what disheartening futures parents were told to expect for their kids and the recommended treatments. Kyle, at the center of this film, was diagnosed with autism at age six and this film is partly his story, partly the story of his parents, Jen and Jeff, and the choice they made to deviate from the norm in hopes that they might forge a closer connection with their son.
The documentary uses a variety of media to illustrate the Westphals’ history, peppered with flashes of the here and now. Each storytelling style feels complementary to one another, mixing archival material from home videos, photos, traditional interviews, and b-roll from the present. The most surprising and effective are stop-motion animated segments, which recreate events and Kyle’s memories, capturing the emotional experience rather than a strictly circumstantial one. There’s an immediate relatability between all the family members, their estrangement, connection, and desire to belong.
And that’s reflective of first-time directors Dan Crane and Katie Taber’s overall point of view. Their focus is not on the scientific breakdown or explanation of autism, but rather its impact on the Westphals, individually and as a whole. There’s a tone of advocacy here, but not from an interest in shaming the other methods. It showcases how radical the Son-Rise Program was for the time. They didn’t try to “fix” Kyle or make him understand “normal” ways of life. They worked to understand him on his terms. And it worked.
The film is excellently paced, staying grounded and compelling through each phase of Kyle’s journey. It avoids becoming overly maudlin but remains instead emotionally honest. Mistakes were made and they’re acknowledged. The struggles the family went through are risky, painful, and rewarding and we get to share in those triumphs. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion and you’re brought fully back to today, the environments and faces and Kyle’s life in the fashion world are familiar but the new context adds so much more meaning. Reactions may vary depending on each viewer’s connection to autism but, for me at least, this film is extremely moving from start to finish.