Okay! (The ASD Band Film)
(Canada, 75 min.)
Dir. Mark Bone
Program: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)
“When I play with the ASD Band, I don’t really see the disability there,” says drummer Spenser Murray in Okay! (The ASD Band Film). Murray is one of four members of the band that fuels this bona fide Hot Docs crowd pleaser. Okay! chronicles the pain and glory of the Toronto-based ASD Band, where ASD is short for autism spectrum disorder. The members, which also include Jackson Begley on guitar, Rawan Tuffaha on lead vocals, and Ron Adea on keyboard, all fall on the autism spectrum. Music is the universal language that connects the quartet with the world around them. It speaks at a pace that each player can interpret and adapt according to their personal beats. One can’t find a stronger group of characters at Hot Docs this year.
Director Mark Bone deftly blends the ASD Band’s musical pursuits with an intimate study of autism and the impact that it has on the family of each member. As insightful as it is entertaining, Okay! takes a cue from its participants. It marches to the beat of its own drum. The doc eschews the pacing and structure of a conventional music doc and is the better for it. It’s loud and occasionally shrill, as exhausting as it is enlightening, yet exuberantly immersive. Okay! brilliantly drops viewers into its characters’ world to afford a clear sense of music’s ability to transform their lives.
The Kids Are Okay
Okay! (The ASD Band Film) features ample interviews with Spenser, Jackson, Rawan, and Ron, as well as their parents. The musicians open up to Bone about what it’s like to be in their skin. They articulate raw accounts of not understanding how to relate to people. Jackson likens the experience to performing a play without a script, while Rawan recalls Googling explanatory notes for what it means to feel. Ron, on the other hand, can place any date in history to its respective day of the week. Through these four characters, the film deftly explores the complexity and diversity of experiences that autism creates. Through one band, the film shows a true spectrum of functionality and behaviour.
Their parents, meanwhile, open up in vulnerable interviews. They share how raising a kid with autism can be a full time job—in some cases here, it is. The parents admit the challenges they faced when they learned that they and their kids weren’t going to have the lives they expected. Jackson’s mom gives the doc an especially strong punch to the heart. She tearfully articulates the pain she feels knowing that her kids are unlikely to experience love. However, despite the visible exhaustion with music screeching in the house at all hours of the day, Bone’s film captures four loving families. Music is clearly a balm that allows their lives to function at a manageably eclectic tempo.
Humour and Heart
The film smartly harnesses the bandmates’ scrappy demeanour. Okay! and the ASD musicians find power in their ability to brush things off their shoulders and share a laugh. Rawan, for example, loves to test the range of her vocals, much to their music coach’s chagrin. She screeches like a strangled cat as she tries her darnedest to hit the highest notes she can. It’s a running gag in the film, for a mellow mid-range tune will abruptly kick into high-gear and derail. However, her spirit doesn’t flap. There’s a clear narrative arc as Rawan learns to control her pitch and her desire to force it.
Some of the other great revealing moments are bits that other hands might have left on the cutting room floor. In one scene, Bone stops Jackson mid-interview because a plane flies overhead. Instead of pausing, Jackson re-enacts and accentuates the airplane’s intrusive whir. Okay! endearingly embraces idiosyncrasies to burrow into the bandmates’ experiences.
The film also observes how the bandmates gain confidence and learn social skills through music. They write songs, therefore expressing emotions in ways that might struggle to articulate in other social settings. Rawan, for example, pens a tune about a bitchy friend, while Jackson writes a love-struck duet. Okay! (The ASD Band) film also takes audiences inside the workings of Jake’s House, a Toronto organization to support youths on the spectrum. Despite the organization’s participation in the film, Bone navigates the dynamic between objectivity and PR capably. Rather, this film is a heartfelt look at the potential people can achieve when given the supports they need.
The Big Show
Okay! culminates with the band’s preparation for its first major public performance. There’s excitement and trepidation as the musicians, their coach, and their parents have no idea how it will go. However, the film finds the ending it needs and deserves. It’s hard not to applaud and cheer.
The film is also smartly and handsomely shot with a fine eye for the characters and their Toronto haunts. It’s especially well put together for a project that was still shooting key material when the Hot Docs programmers were assembling their line-up. (There are talks that date the final concert to January 27, 2022 when Ontario was amid its most recent phase of arbitrary shutdowns.) Best of all is the soundtrack, which lets the energy and spirts of the ASD Band shine. There are, however, a few high notes that nearly pop one’s eardrums. But that’s all part of the fun.
Okay! (The ASD Band Film) premiered at Hot Docs 2022.