“Best and Most Beautiful Things”
Michelle Smith is a twenty-years-old precocious blind woman who chases love and freedom in quite a provocative fringe community. Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject. She also has Asperser’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can fixate on a subject almost the exclusion of all else.
The documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, Massachusetts until shortly after graduation. Michelle knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment ending, she wants to be independent so that she can develop as an individual and as a woman.
Michelle lives with her mom, Julie, who is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” Her parents are supportive but are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.
Michelle received an offer for an internship with someone who worked on the “Rugrats” show in Los and if it works out it would be perfect for her. For the disabled, life is rough and it is heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart.
Michelle is a something of a nerd who is into anime and Darla and collects dolls. Then she gets into the BDSM scene and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship even though they are both young themselves. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift.
Director and filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time. What, for me, the film does is challenge our ideas of what “normal” is. We get a look at the uphill battles people with disabilities face in a world often not designed to accommodate them and also a lively, engaging portrait of a young woman with ordinary hopes and dreams: Michelle is an explicit challenge to our ideas of what “normal” is, particularly as it concerns her autism and how it shapes how she interacts with other people. Zevgetis finds an intriguing way to replicate Michelle’s experience of the world when it comes to her sight: she can see some things if she holds stuff very close to her face, so the filmmaker sometimes engages in extreme close-ups that reduce the frame of vision down to the smallest perspective. Nonetheless Michelle’s eye on the world and the possibilities open to her is enormous; we can see from the moment it is broached that she may be getting her hopes up in an unrealistic way. But as young people we all did that. Regardless of our capabilities, we all want and need the same things out of life, Michelle may be, in the words of the film’s tagline, “not your average outcast,” but she’s not so unusual at all.
Director Garrett Zevgetis’ self-described mission in making this film was to tell Michelle’s story without focusing on her disabilities and in this way have us ponder our own concepts of normalcy.
Michelle is bright, outgoing, vivacious, and determined not to be held her back. However, she also can become overwrought and argumentative and retreats into herself when she feels her disabilities are dominating her life.
Michelle’s desire is to rise above her circumstances and this is what propels her to find ways to experience life on her own. She skates at a roller rink, goes to bars, becomes involved in a sexual role-playing community, and spends a week in Los Angeles. Her confidence and self-esteem develop, allowing her to overcome the reservations expressed by family and a former teacher.
Even though Zevgetis emphasizes Michelle’s personality and accomplishments, her disabilities are an integral a part of her story. By the time the film is over, we realize that all we have done is observe her. The film’s strongest aspect, though, chronicles how someone like Michelle, even with her obvious talents and abilities, can be made to feel like an outcast and pushed into a life of dependence by conventional thinking that focuses on what she can’t do rather than on her abilities.
Early into the film, Michelle Smith says while standing in her bedroom, “This is my life.” By that, she means not just the dozens of dolls and playthings lining her walls, but also herself. Michelle remains in front of the camera and talks about her tribulations.
The film’s title is drawn from the Helen Keller quote “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” We really do not understand Michelle as anything more than a symbol for perseverance even thought I really wanted that to happen.