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Hot Docs Film Review – ‘OKAY! (The ASD Band Film)’

“We’re all autistic and we’re in a band. ASD Band,” announces ASD guitarist Jackson D. Begley. “That’s the general gist.” OKAY! (The ASD Band Film), directed by Mark Bone, is the story of that band. And the general gist of his film is that these young people can really play, and their original tunes actually kick some ass. The film is currently streaming at Hot Docs 2022, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, and it has stolen my heart.

Mark Bone is a Toronto-based filmmaker, and everyone in the band is from the greater Toronto area. Being local seems to have provided the director with the opportunity to build relationships with these folks, as there’s a high degree of comfort and candor, from the kids and their families. The band is the big idea of Andrew Simon, ASD’s manager who also gets a writing and story credit on OKAY!. He thought it would be a great way to raise awareness and support for Toronto-based autism charity Jake’s House.

ASD stands for autism spectrum disorder, and all four of these young people sit somewhere on the autism spectrum, and all are fairly high-functioning. There is a theme in the film of the dynamic between heartwarmth and heartbreak. It permeates the film for me. These kids are so genuine. They’re people whose parents were told would never be “normal,” but despite the challenges, are living lives of compassion and dignity.

The band members talk openly about the effort it takes to feel at ease in the neurotypical world. Guitarist Jackson shares how he’s constantly thinking about everything that he does. “Am I smiling enough…?” He’s constantly checking to make sure that his demeanor is appropriate for the situation. Trying to act normal. He explains that “Having autism is like being in a play and it’s opening night and everybody has a copy of the script except you.”

Other themes that run through the film are perseverance and a sense of collaborative effort. The band share a camaraderie and the thrill of creating together as people whose minds work similarly. Their families also embody the spirit of perseverance and collaboration as they support these young folks. David and Irene Bodanis, who founded Jake’s House, have three pretty severely autistic children, including Jake who is non-verbal. While not band parents, they contribute moving perspective throughout the film. These are all families that have worked selflessly to help their children have rich lives filled with love.

I’ve mentioned Jackson the guitarist. He’s got an Elvis fetish. There’s some footage of him in a jumpsuit, busting some Elvis moves, and I am here for that. He’s also a songwriter and a singer in the band.

There’s Ron Adea, the keyboardist, whose smile is a pure expression of his heart. He’s an amazing piano player, and has recorded some CDs of his music. He can memorize charts just looking at them briefly. Ron also knows, on any date past or future, what day of the week it would be. There’s a fun scene where the other three quiz him – he’s right every time.

The singer is Rawan Tuffaha. Her mother shares that when she was little the only way she could communicate was by screaming. The tension of this memory is palpable, as her mother tells the story. Today, Rawan has developed into a skilled singer with a gorgeous, powerful voice. And she has perfect pitch, meaning she can identify notes by ear.

Spenser Murray is the drummer. He’s also the drummer in a hardcore band with a neurotypical bass player and guitarist. In one scene they rehearse in the afternoon in an apartment building. At one point, Spenser gets a text and he’s like, “The guy upstairs is on a work call and wants us to stop playing.” They find this very amusing and continue jamming. So, Spense has a bit of a punk-rock attitude. He seems like a pretty funny guy, except when he’s playing Scrabble, at which point he tells his mother to, “stop looking at my fucking letters.”

Jackson, Rawan, Ron, Spenser & Maury

They also have this guy Maury LauFoy playing bass. He’s neurotypical and acts as the music director and facilitator of the project. Throughout most of the film, the band are developing songs and recording. They’re working on an EP of all original material. In the studio one day, Maury has a big announcement… the band has a gig! Maury says, “It’s January 27th, 2022 at the Toronto Opera House.” Ron pipes up, “That’s a Thursday!”

For the gig, they have a nice crowd and there’s a huge positive energy. My one disappointment with the film is that Bone and his editor don’t show more of the Opera House performance. They show most of the opening number, but then go into some stylized stuff with more commentary. I really wanted to hear the tunes. I got to know their songs through the course of the film, and they’re good. They’re bonafide earworms.

The lyrics are especially interesting. Rawan writes “We’re different but not less / Different for sure but never settle for less.” Jackson has a song called “Masquerade” about the mask that people with autism wear to try to appear normal. The power of language through verse and with music is apparent. And the non-verbal communication between these musicians is fascinating to watch.

I was very charmed by the whole story. The music’s fun, and these are really cool young people who say honest, funny things and have hearts full of love for each other and their families. They’re thrilled to have this opportunity; they don’t take it for granted or feel entitled. Although when Rawan introduces the band at their show, she says, “I really can’t wait to perform with everybody. We really deserve to be having the fame that we deserve.”

OKAY! has been a fan favorite at Hot Docs. Throughout the festival it’s been at or near the top of audience appreciation voting. I concur. I really hope the film gets a wider release, because I’m sure it’s heartwarming, heartbreaking charm will resonate with a broad audience.

Here’s the official trailer:

And here’s a different trailer that shows some other bits:

If you’d like to make a donation to Jake’s House you can visit the website: jakeshouse.ca

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