The word “normal” means different things under different circumstances. Something could be “normal” as in boring or unexciting; it could be an expected event, or the average of a data set. These definitions are fairly uncontroversial. “Normal” is a word we use every day.
It is when the word “normal” is applied to human beings that meanings begin to shift. “Normal” doesn’t mean anything as innocuous as the ordinary. It means the conventional. It means the proper. It means a narrowly prescribed set of behaviors and identities that creates a cultural binary. You are “normal,” or you are not. You are “normal,” or you are other, and to be other is to be wrong. In the spiraling, criss-crossing world of human identity and experience, “normal” is one of the most powerful social controls there is.
A strategy to break down binaries in the real world is to blur the bitter wall of exclusion and hate, and that is what Best and Most Beautiful Things (2016), directed by Garrett Zevgetis and co-presented by the UMass Boston Film Series and Bright Lights at Emerson College, aims to do. Centered on Michelle, a woman from Maine who lives with legal blindness and (a diagnosis of) autism, Beautiful Things picks and prods at the notion of normality in many of its myriad forms.
The film does so by giving us access to Michelle, and letting her speak. We follow her on a non-linear journey from being bullied in elementary school, to finding acceptance (to a point) at the Perkins School for the Blind, to after graduation when the future is all but certain. Limited by both her visual impairment and the supposed emotional effects of her autism, Michelle has trouble finding and keeping a job after school ends. A potential internship in Los Angeles doing voice work is postponed into non-existence. Michelle’s main goal—to live independently—is constantly proclaimed to be out of reach. She receives support from her family and advisors, but she also receives condensation: One advisor says that Michelle losing her job at the post office was the autism’s fault, not Michelle’s, as if part of Michelle’s identity is toxic and separate from the “real” her.
One of the film’s goals, then, is to reveal the “real” Michelle, in all her differences and deviations from the “normal.” She is in her twenties, and still collects dolls. She identifies more strongly with anime characters than with other people. She discovers acceptance in the BDSM community, practicing a daddy/little girl lifestyle with her boyfriend that shocks her mother and stepfather.
The film skirts on the edge of making an uncomfortable juxtaposition between her role as a sexual submissive who enjoys age-play and the “childlike” personality that is prescribed to her autism—but maybe it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. As the film makes clear, very few people understand the value BDSM holds for people like Michelle who don’t feel like they truly belong anywhere else. And her articulation of her position—that she is not being taken advantage of, that she only relinquishes control to those she trusts completely—is a shock to any preconceptions, highlighted by the film, that the viewer might have.
And that is, perhaps, the most important message this film has to offer. It is not enough to merely resist marginalization; one must challenge it, head on, with the power that storytelling and self-advocacy holds. Michelle’s bravery in telling her story, in speaking out in a world that tells her to be silent, reminds us that for a story to be told and received means finding a commonality between speaker and listener, no matter how different the two might be.
As Michelle says, you have something in common with every single person on Earth—all that is required is the will to look for it.