Independent Film Festival of Boston 2018: The Limits of My World, by Sarah Brinks
The Limits of My World is a documentary made by director Heather Cassano to get to know her brother Brian better. Brian is severely autistic and nearly completely non-verbal. Brian is now an adult man and Cassano wanted to see if she could understand him better by making a film about his transition from school to an independent living situation.
We see Brian graduate from school and move into a small ranch home in suburban Baltimore. Brian physically looks like a neuro-typical person except for his tell-tale autistic behaviors. He never makes eye contact and he has a myriad of physical and vocal ticks and out bursts. Change can be very difficult for anyone, but it can be all that much harder for people with autism and we watch as Brian adjusts to his new surroundings and care givers.
Cassano uses home videos to show what it was like growing up with a profoundly autistic brother. She even has a conversation with her mother about how different he was a child. The mother admits that he as a lot easier to care fore before he hit puberty. Brian is a big man, probably over six feet tall and he is strong. Cassano has her mom read out a series of emails from when she was first away at college and the struggles that they faced. Brian would frequently break walls or cause damage to their home. He was once arrested by the police and he even once attacked Cassano and it took both of her parents to get Brian off of her. As a result, she was afraid of her brother for a long time. However, the film shows how Brian has transitioned from that aggressive, angry adolescent into a more mature young man.
Cassano, to her credit, doesn’t shy away from showing some of the more upsetting behaviors Brian exhibits like shouting, occasionally shoving, pacing, etc. But she also shows the softer side of Brian. We see him hold hands with one of his caregivers, he loves Mary Poppins and listens to the soundtrack frequently, and him learning to be comfortable around a miniature horse. Brian also loves the water. He is at his most relaxed when he is swimming. It was fascinating how as the film went on you got to understand Brian better. I could tell when he was happy or agitated or uncomfortable.
The Limits of My World is in some ways a pretty straightforward documentary. We see a series of days over about two years filmed and watch Brian grown and learn. However, given Brian’s profound autism, he is unaware of the camera and Cassano is able to get extremely candid footage of Brian and the world he lives in without him being self-conscious about being filmed. In that way this feels like a documentary that could never exist if the subject was neuro-typical.
The Limits of My World is also a profoundly personal documentary. Cassano admitted in the Q&A after the screening that she had to insert herself into the film too. The home footage from their childhood and her voice over show how separate they have been and, in many ways, will always be, but also how people can change and learn to find things to cherish in each other. Cassano says in one of her voice-overs that there are moments when she thinks they are connecting but she can never truly know, because Brian cannot communicate with her in that way.
Sometimes movies hit you in an emotionally sensitive place that you weren’t expecting when you sat down in the theater. The Limits of My World was one of those experiences for me. Something about the way Cassano made her film and the way she talks about her relationship with Brian and the challenges her family faced triggered a really emotional response for me. The scenes with her mother were particularly emotionally impactful for me. Anyone with a sibling can probably relate to some of what Cassano shares in her documentary in one way or another.