“Let Me Be Me” is an upbeat documentary biography of Philadelphia fashion designer Kyle Westphal.
We see him at Drexel University, prepping dresses and the like for his college program’s senior collection. We feel Kyle’s enthusiasm and attention to detail at his work. We also pick up on Kyle having a somewhat feminine voice and maybe a Forrest Whitaker droopy eyelid. He’s making eye contact, not a lot of it.
And then we see his home movies, the baby with an undeveloped eye muscle, a child who didn’t really master speech until six or later, who “didn’t relate” to his siblings or his parents.
We’re shown a montage of the way TV news — local and national — covered autism in the ’80s and ’90s. Wherever Kyle is now, he was born with a birth defect, grew up gay-but-didn’t-know-it, and he was autistic at a time medicine was slow to abandon the “childhood schizophrenia” diagnosis.
Katie Tauber and Dan Crane’s film uses home movies, interviews with Kyle and his family, his teachers and others to show us how he was and the vast support system that “Let Me Be Me” and become the engaged, creative adult he plainly is.
The filmmakers, the parents and their subject emphasize “each unique situation” nature of how lives are lived “on the spectrum,” and present Kyle as a sort of case study. A lot of things, starting with a proper diagnosis and early, persistent and exhaustive intervention, as well as “learning” from TV shows and movies, contributed to Kyle’s socialization and self-actualization.
But as this biography of an autistic fashion designer progresses and we notice who most of those outside the family are giving testimonials to Kyle’s treatment and his prognosis are from the same “institute,” “Let Me Be Me” prompts a wary raised eyebrow of skepticism.
The film is not just about Kyle’s unique story. It’s also a not-skeptical-enough endorsement of the Son Rise program of behavioral treatment for autistic kids, an immersive, all-in commitment that some experts say may have value and may get positive results, but lacking peer-reviewed science to back it up, could be just a “somewhat” effective and even well-intentioned goldmine for the family that founded it.
Later efforts to walk back this wholehearted endorsement in the film are halfhearted at best.
“Let Me Be Me” is on its surest ground in showing the ever-evolving understanding of autism and how radically views about it have changed just in last few decades. We get a sense of the desperation that every parent we know who’s dealt with this, that we’ve ever seen interviewed on TV about the subject must feel, the hope for a “cure.” We even hear the judgmental “You just need to get control of your child” that parents faced until medical science reassured them “It’s not our fault.”
The footage of the Son Rise-sponsored “play room” stripped of distractions where parents and volunteers kept Kyle company, joined in with games of his own invention, is most fascinating. And hearing Kyle give an insider’s view of the autism experience, why an autistic child spins, repeats gibberish phrases (Disney cartoons provide a lot of “Bippy, boppity boos”) and covers him-or-herself in blankets or hides under cushions is illuminating as well.
A play room that cuts down on the overstimulating outside world — vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers, noisy siblings, TV — seems to give an autistic child a calming baseline to start experiencing the world from.
Hearing Kyle talk about “learning how to act” from the TV shows his siblings and peers loved is also interesting. “Buffy” and “Alias” and others shows showed him behaviors that passed for a “norm,” and “Gossip Girl” gave him a future outlet for his childhood Disney princess fascination — fashion.
Aside from its tacit Son Rise approval, “Let Me Be Me” has value in reinforcing the difficult concept we hear so much from autism experts, that every child on that spectrum truly is a “unique” case. The film, Kyle and his family suggest a “whatever works” ethos that can be heartening to desperate parents looking for something that helps with a child they can’t reach.
But you don’t have to dig into Son Rise’s effectiveness or financials to know that kind of “outside the box” and “outside science” thinking is what drives the Jenny McCarthys of the world as well. “Evoling understanding” or not, we don’t know “whatever works” is working, or just a case of misdiagnosis, until experts study it and their peers weigh in to back them up.
Rating: unrated, some profanity
Cast: Kyle Westphal, Jennifer Westphal, Jeff Westphal, Barry Neil Kaufman
Credits: Directed by Dan Crane and Katie Tauber, scripted by Dan Crane. A Greenwich release.
Running time: 1:15