“Out of My Mind” director Amber Sealey earned the admiration of Jennifer Aniston – not to mention multiple standing ovations – out of her drama’s 2024 Sundance premiere, in part thanks to her dedication in telling an authentic, human story that happens to center on a girl living with cerebral palsy.
On a Jan. 22 inclusivity panel at the festival, titled “Championing Change: The Power of Inclusive Filmmaking,” presented by TheWrap, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and NFP, Sealey said that she hopes audiences learn from her drama’s hero, Melody (Phoebe-Rae Taylor), that “everybody communicates in a different way.”
The filmmaker, who’s previously known for 2021’s “No Man of God” and here worked with screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman to adapt Sharon M. Draper’s 2010 novel of the same name, admitted that there “was a big learning curve for me” to get it right.
“I remember early on in my research phase, the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, they did do a lot of asking people with disabilities, like, what do you want to see more?” she recalled, “What largely came out of that was people with disabilities wanted to see movies that centered on them as human beings and not just on their disability.”
Sealey added that those consultants also emphasized a desire to see stories that “focused on them not only as human beings, but also wasn’t always about pitying them, and also wasn’t always about them only being only worthy or only valuable because they were superhuman.”
In the case of Melody, she’s a sixth grader who “is very smart,” but Sealey was conscious of adapting the novel in a way that framed her as being “special” for more than just “because she’s a genius.”
“She’s a human being. She’s just like anybody else – she has thoughts, feelings, fears. And so that was what my approach with the film was like. This is like any other tween girl, she just happens to be nonverbal. She happens to use a wheelchair,” Sealey said. “Her having cerebral palsy is a part of how she moves through the world. Her being nonverbal is a part of the way she moves through the world, but it’s not everything about her.”
In telling Melody’s story – which costars Rosemarie DeWitt, Luke Kirby, Judith Light and Michael Chernus – Sealey said that inclusivity was practiced in front of and behind the camera.
“The inclusivity part was really about not only including people with disabilities in the cast, in the crew, in the creative process, consultants, writers, all of that,” she said. “But, also, just about how we look at people with disabilities, trying not to treat them as objects, trying not to treat them just as their disability, but treating them as a human being.”
“It’s about her finding her voice, but it’s also more importantly about the rest of us learning how to listen and understanding that everybody communicates in a different way,” she said. “Some of us use our voice, some of use our hands, some of us use a computer – we all communicate differently.”
Sealey was joined on the Monday morning panel by “Frida” documentarian Carla Gutierrez, Funny Or Die founder Henry Muñoz and Brown Girls Doc Mafia founder Iyabo Boyd, all of whom spoke to the importance of inclusivity in their own work, their reservations about the state of DEI initiatives in Hollywood today and more.
Watch the full panel — as moderated by The Curvy Critic, Carla Renata — in the video above.