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'Music' review: Sia's controversial musical-fantasy-drama misfires

Maddie Ziegler (l) and Kate Hudson in

 Maddie Ziegler (l) and Kate Hudson in the film "Music."  Credit: Vertical Entertainment via AP/Merrick Morton

PLOT A severely autistic girl is left in the care of her troubled older sister.

CAST Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler, Leslie Odom, Jr.

RATED PG-13 (adult themes, some violence)

LENGTH 1:48

WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE Controversy aside, Sia’s musical-fantasy-drama is a misfire.

The worst thing that can happen to a movie has happened to "Music," the writing-directing debut of the Australian pop phenomenon Sia. The story of a severely autistic girl, Music, who escapes into elaborately choreographed daydreams set to several original songs, the film seems intended as an offbeat, idiosyncratic and bravely ridiculous statement. Instead, "Music" stumbled into controversy.

Members of the autistic community accused Sia of ableism — for not casting an autistic actress as her lead (Sia said she tried but the nonverbal actress found the experience too "unpleasant") and for consulting with Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy group in the U.S. (Sia said she was unaware it had become a polarizing organization.) To discuss these sensitive and complicated topics, Sia ill-advisedly turned to Twitter, where her use of the term "special abilities" drew scorn ("disabled" is the preferred term). Sia got her back up, turned nasty, then deleted her account.

If it’s possible to judge "Music" without all this baggage, here’s what we’re left with: A visually arresting but dramatically weak film that deserves credit for going out on a limb even as it plummets to the ground. At best, it’s a slightly cringeworthy but intermittently entertaining example of personal vision run amok.

Maddie Ziegler, the star of Sia’s "Chandelier" video, gives a fully committed performance as Music, who is nonverbal and obsessive-compulsive. (In the film, she is never explicitly classified as autistic. Whether or not Ziegler gives an accurate performance, she certainly gives a committed one.) After the death of her grandmother (Mary Kay Place), Music falls under the care of her older half-sister, Zu, a street-hardened petty criminal. Zu is played by a very good Kate Hudson with buzzed hair, a saucy attitude and the relentlessly upbeat patter of an addict.

"Music" suffers from a sugary streak and a fondness for cliches. Music and Zu live in a neighborhood populated by kindly neighbors and beatific bodega owners. Meanwhile, Music disappears into a fantasyland of musical numbers featuring dancers in wild outfits and backdrops painted in eye-blasting colors. These numbers correspond only superficially to reality which makes them feel oddly extraneous. If Music is trying to express something, we’re not getting it.

During her fantasy sequences Music does not sing or speak. Often she performs what might be called face-dancing, a synchronized series of winks, grimaces and smiles that bring a certain grace to Music’s real-world tics. The film has come under fire for scenes of characters forcibly restraining Music during a meltdown, and Sia has promised to remove these scenes, but no one suggests that Music should change. Nor does the character ever wish to. At least this movie knows enough to let Music be.

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