Almost seven years ago, Wonder took the children’s film and book world by storm. Focusing on a kid with facial differences and starring Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, and Jacob Tremblay, the Stephen Chbosky-directed piece was lauded for its depictions of disability. There was backlash for casting a child without the character’s condition in the main role, but for the most part, it became a staple in children’s disability representation.
Casting is not an issue for Out of My Mind, the latest film from director Amber Sealey which premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released on Disney Plus later this year. Centering on a six-grader with cerebral palsy named Melody, the film is a first for newcomer Phoebe-Rae Taylor who has the same condition as her character.
When we first meet Melody we find her communicating at a minimum with her family and peers using a rudimentary picture and word chart. Though voiceover provided by Jennifer Aniston, she is clearly capable of more, something her dad (Luke Kirby) senses. Her mother Rosemarie DeWitt is an advocate and tough-cookie used to fighting for her child but holding realistic expectations of her abilities.
After a PhD student (Courtney Taylor), realizes her potential during an IEP meeting to discuss Melody’s future in her special education class, she is placed in a sixth-grade history class with other students her age. Through that opportunity, her desires for typical things such as cute clothes and a first kiss start to become undeniable.
With an unsupportive teacher (Michael Chernus), a passionate neighbor (Judith Light), and the help of her family, she starts to express herself through a Medi-talk communication device and reveals how bright she is.
One thing worth noting here is that writer Daniel Stiepleman (based on Sharon M Draper’s young adult novel of the same name), keeps the 2002 setting of the book, where the standard of care for those with cerebral palsy was much different than it is now. Melody is placed in a special education classroom, learning the same thing year after year. Anyone with any familiarity with special education knows that many things have changed in two decades including a push for inclusion among special education students. This depiction feels antiquated now, especially given its target audience being upper elementary and middle school students. Maybe keeping a modern setting would help with its disability representation.
Luke Kirby is a standout here. Adding a sweet parental humor, you buy him as a devoted but stressed-out father. Stiepleman’s script glosses over the parental difficulties but that doesn’t stop Kirby from giving a moving performance. Worth noting too is the chemistry between DeWitt and Kirby. Similarly to how CODA showed two parents who clearly still yearned for each other, Out of My Mind subtly shows the same.
Jennifer Aniston provides Melody’s inner voice. Unlike most movies that use the narrative device, Out of My Mind’s voiceover is meant to actually service the story. In some scenes, Aniston’s presence is distracting and doesn’t feel like it fits. Storywise, Melody picks her voice because of her love of Friends. But because we don’t constantly get Melody’s voice in every scene, the voiceover sometimes feels like an afterthought.
While not a perfect depiction of disability representation, Out of My Mind is accessible for children and a good start to show how those who are differently abled have the same wants and fears as everyone else. Phoebe-Rae Taylor gives a knockout and endearing performance you can’t look away from. In terms of representation, you can’t get better than that.