Film Review: At the IFFBoston — “Best and Most Beautiful Things”

Garrett Zevgetis’s multi-dimensional documentary about the struggles of Michelle Smith, legally blind and diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, is hardly predictable.

Best and Most Beautiful Things, directed by Garrett Zevgetis. Playing at the Somerville Theatre on Saturday, April 30 at 2 p.m. as part of IFFBoston

A scene from "Best and Beautiful Things,"screening at the IFFB on April 30.

A scene from “Best and Most Beautiful Things,” screening at the IFFB on April 30.

By Betsy Sherman

The Independent Film Festival Boston will be holding two simultaneous screenings at the Somerville Theatre of Best and Most Beautiful Things. One will be accessible to attendees who are blind or deaf, with audio descriptions supplementing the film’s soundtrack and captions shown on screen. For sighted patrons at this alternate screening, blindfolds will be available for those who wish to, as per the press release, “see with their ears.”

Best and Most Beautiful Things follows Bangor, Maine, resident Michelle Smith during her late teens and early twenties. Michelle is legally blind and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. She graduated high school at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. The movie explores the tension between Michelle’s vaguely sketched-out hope to move out of her mother’s house and the weighing-in of family members and teachers about the possibility that she can be independent.

This thumbnail may suggest familiar ground of the “inspirational” sort. While that’s surely part of the takeaway, Garrett Zevgetis’s multi-dimensional documentary is hardly predictable. Part of the delight of watching it is being pointed towards one particularly unforeseen detour. Along with its “disability” aspect, this coming-of-age story looks at the process of creating one’s life as a collage, with pieces of childhood and adulthood peacefully co-existing. The filmmaker is interesting in discovering the poetic, looking at and listening for the beauty that can draw the film’s sometimes fragile subject out of her darker moments of doubt.

As the movie opens, Michelle admits that she’s has spent the year since graduation mostly isolated in her bedroom. She watches an episode of the animated show Daria and identifies with the quick-witted high school misfit. The camera captures things Michelle cherishes, such as her collection of dolls (of the non-saccharine variety, such as Werecat Sisters), her cat, and her computer. This last is a godsend, since faces are a blur to her and she has to hold printed matter up to her face to read it. With magnification and proximity, she can enjoy what the Internet has to offer.

The bubbly girl with big brown eyes aspires to move on. “I’m ready for the uncensored world … even the good, bad and the ugly,” she says. Yet her job experience consists of one hire, and she didn’t even make it through training because she was so emotionally delicate.

Michelle speaks of being shunned by classmates and undervalued at public school. Attending Perkins changed her life, and a key section of the film (presented as a flashback) was shot while Michelle was a student there. Her contributions to a class discussion of Hamlet are playful and imaginative. What’s more, we find out that, at Perkins, Michelle was at some distance from the fallout from her parents’ volatile divorce.

At a Perkins reunion, an administrator tells Michelle that, if she wants, she could do an internship in Los Angeles with the creator of Rugrats. Michelle is over the moon with joy — and from here on, the idea of her living and working in L.A. becomes, to the girl and those who love her, a prospect as fraught and complicated as a moon-shot. How would this work? By now we’ve experienced some of Michelle’s frustrating moments, felt her dependence on her Mom, and seen a spin around a roller rink that was admirable, but also arduous.

Concurrent to this big question mark is another development. Michelle, fanatical about animé, science fiction, costumes and such, is shown to be a visitor to websites that carry role-playing into the sexual realm. A young man enters the picture. How will he fit into her plans?

Best and Most Beautiful Things contributes a welcome perspective to the debate about what is normal — and wonders, why should we stop pushing the boundaries?

Note: Expected to be in attendance at the IFFB screening: director Garrett Zevgetis, subjects Michelle Smith and Julie Smith, and executive producers Kevin Bright & Claudia Bright.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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