Documentary Review: “My Beautiful Stutter”

“My Beautiful Stutter” is a film about stuttering and stutterers viewed through the efforts of an organization trying to “put children in a place” where they love themselves, teaching them “I stutter, and it’s OK.”

That organization is SAY, The Stuttering Association of the Young. Director Ryan Gielen’s film is about the organization’s outreach, its efforts to not so much explain stuttering/stammering or champion treatment and a “cure,” but to help young stutterers to come to terms with it as they work with speech pathologists, mental health professionals and others in coping with the bullying and insecurities that have long plagued school age kids dealing with this.

A common complaint? Listeners interrupting and “helping” somebody finish a thought. It’s not “helping.”

Taro Alexander, a stutterer himself, founded the organization, and eventually figured that the best way to help kids cope was to let them know they aren’t alone, and give them a chance to attend a summer camp in the mountains of N.C. where they could hear each other’s stories, provide support and be “normal” with activities — from theater to rock climbing, archery to basketball — where they weren’t under the spotlight of being the only stutterer in their age group.

Teen Julianna Padilla sings as a way of expressing herself that transcends struggles talking. A child traumatized as a toddler, another born prematurely, another who has gone on to give motivational “TED” style talks about the struggle.

There aren’t a lot of experts here explaining the condition, just reminders that 70,000,000 people worldwide suffer from it, that it’s not tied to intelligence and that the “nervousness” associated with that sort of speech comes from anxiety over having to speak, and is not the cause of stuttering.

Gielen’s film follows a formula familiar to anybody who watches documentaries, “The Lottery” format made most famous in that 2010 film about school assignment lotteries. Meet kids in various corners of the country or from various neighborhoods, profile them and bring everybody together to see what happens.

“Crip Camp,” the Oscar-buzzed Netflix documentary about a pioneering camp for children with disabilities, is the best recent film to work within this formula.

Most of “My Beautiful Stutter” takes place at that camp. And while it’s moving to see see what these children are coping with and inspiring to see how some of them manage to thrive, with a hint that not every parent sees the benefit of such a camp, the big emotional moments common to such documentaries are somewhat lacking here. The film’s narrow focus make it more an expression of support for those who stutter and those trying to make stutterers’ lives better than an “explainer,” a movie that covers a lot more ground on the subject.

Finishing at a “benefit gala” has a whiff of “we had nothing else to show you” about it.

It takes nothing away from the participants to suggest the film about this experience is informative, but not definitively so, and more interesting than moving. The too-similar “Crip Camp” makes for a more compelling film, built on exactly the same framework.

“My Beautiful Stutter,” shot mostly in 2015 and shown in festivals in 2019, makes its Discovery+ debut at a time when a stutterer is in the White House (not mentioned in “Stutter”).

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Taro Alexander, Julianna Padilla, Malcolm Venable, Dame Helen Mirren, John Sculley

Credits: Directed by Ryan Gielen, script by Steven Sander. A Discovery+ release.

Running time: 1:30

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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