Best and Most Beautiful Things is not the film I thought it would be.
When we first meet Michelle Smith, she is 20-years old, though she could easily pass for 12. She is legally blind, (though she can read if her face is right up close to the paper or computer). And she’s been diagnosed with mild autism.
Her disabilities are not the only things Michelle has had to contend with in her short time on earth. One of her brothers, Mitchell, died from cancer when he was just 5-years old. Though not explicitly stated, this seems to have been a large factor in the divorce of Michelle’s parents, which happened when she was 13. Years have passed, but relationships are still frosty between them; both accuse each other of lying and manipulating their children, and although they are filmed together in many scenes, they never talk to each other.
More due to her Asperger’s than her blindness, Michelle was fired from the only job she ever had. Her former school helps to find her an internship with the creator of the cartoon “Rugrats.” She’s thrilled by this, having wanted to be a voice actress since she was a little girl. She’s told by a well-meaning but irresponsible teacher that she’ll indeed get the chance to achieve this dream.
She doesn’t. And that’s what marks this out from other “disability documentaries” such as this year’s “Life Animated.” Michelle doesn’t get to dramatically overcome her difficulties and have all her dreams come true. She doesn’t get to meet her heroes.
The internship is downgraded to a “meeting.” Months are downgraded to one week. You can see in the faces of her family and teachers that they know this isn’t going to be what she hopes it is. And they so want this for her. But it isn’t to be.
More about Michelle. Her Asperger’s causes her to have intense obsessions. She’s super into anime, and Daria, the cartoon about the sardonic, outcast teenager. It’s obviously a character she relates to; Michelle has a similar brand of dry, distanced humor. She also collects dolls, though she knows that’s an unusual hobby for a 20-year old. That’s small fry compared to some of her other interests, however.
Michelle, and her sweetly dorky boyfriend, are into BDSM. Specifically they like “Age Play,” where Michelle pretends she’s a baby, or a child. When the film takes this unexpected turn, things get very awkward. It’s hard not to cringe when she’s explaining the specifics to her mum, or to an older male teacher. But it’s also hard not to admire her courage and forthrightness when she talks about it. Her type of sexuality is something that would be kept hidden by most people, but there’s so much going on in Michelle’s life, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. She’s completely frank about every aspect of her world, so it makes sense that she would be about her interest in BDSM.
Best and Most Beautiful Things isn’t so much a film about overcoming obstacles as it is a film about managing expectations. That’s a less showy, less uplifting theme, but it’s an admirable one. You know, from the moment the idea is raised early on, that it isn’t going to be a film which tracks a blind, autistic woman as she becomes a famous voice actor. Michelle doesn’t know it, at the time, but we do. That’s the Hollywood version of this story, it isn’t the truth.
Instead what we get is an acknowledgment that success means different things for different people. What Michelle ultimately achieves is something that most people don’t think twice about, but for her, it is a huge step. It isn’t the glamorous L.A. lifestyle that she dreamed of, but a leap toward independence that she works so hard for. And it’s an honor to witness her accomplish that.