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SIFF 2024 Heroes

From 'We Can Be Heroes.' Photo courtesy SIFF.

SIFF 2024: ‘We Can Be Heroes’ film review

A poignant film about the importance of belonging

As the parent of a 25-year-old on the autism spectrum, I’ve seen my share of movies and TV shows about quirky kids who struggle to find connection and fit in in a world that sees them as weird, outsiders, or “other.” Or, equally hard, a world that doesn’t see them at all.

None of those viewings touched me as profoundly–or better illustrated that fit is a matter of finding your tribe–as “We Can Be Heroes,” an 86-minute lovefest of a documentary screening at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) this month. It’s a poignant, often funny, completely non-judgemental look inside beautifully nerdy teens that will ripple in the hearts of viewers, especially parents, for a long time after viewing, whether or not you have a connection with a neurodiverse child. 

LARPers unite

Co-directed by Alex Simmons and Carina Wong, the film adeptly captures the struggles and triumphs of young people attending The Wayfinder Experience sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Wayfinder is a haven for youth who love to “LARP” (live-action role play), many of whom are socially challenged by autism, high anxiety, or being LGBTQIA+ or members of other maligned or misunderstood communities.

As the campers get to know each other over a week of theatrical exercises, D & D-style world-building, and physical role-play, they learn what it means to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who they are, quirks and all. 

Redirecting the voice

Equally important, while they move through the motions of slaying demons on the imaginary battlefields of The Last Green role-play game, they learn to slay another type of demon: the negative inner voice bolstered by real-world experiences of isolation or ostracization that tells them they are not good enough. As Dexter, a funny, thoughtful, homeschooled teen navigating his first burning crush, says in the film: “The enemy is a voice in my head that tries to make me feel bad about everything.”

Synopsis

The documentary follows several campers heading to Wayfinder’s one-week live-action role-playing camp program. 

Among the storylines is that of the endearing, deep-thinking, tick-obsessed Dexter, who is returning to camp to requite a tender first love for a fellow camper he hopes feels the same way. There’s high-energy Cloud, an 11-year-old who’s switched schools three times in as many years and struggles with showing vulnerability. There’s Abbey, 17, who has a life-threatening illness that has kept her isolated but who is ready to embrace connection and heal the grief connected to being sick. Max yearns for appreciation for his creativity and Miranda. Shy, 18-year-old Miranda is on her way to college, but her voice and confidence could use a boost. 

Over the week, campers are guided through the structured creation of a fantasy campaign, culminating in a two-day role-play game. They create their characters, develop costumes, take pledges to respect one another and learn to sword fight (the emphasis being on theatrically falling and moaning rather than winning). Along the way, they form friendships and alliances that enhance the LARP storyline and, the viewer hopes, their lives. 

Without subterfuge

The cinematography here is artful, the fake battle scenes are Braveheart ethereal, and the interviews, caught frustrations, and fears of the campers feel authentic, uncoached, and often poetic. However, the true gift of  “We Can Be Heroes” is its decided lack of message-pushing or labels. Camper nameplates do not contain classifications like “autistic” (ergo, feel sorry for me). I think The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg summed it up perfectly: 

“It’s easy for a documentary like this to push audience reactions in one way or another with a comic piece of editing or a lachrymose musical cue. Instead, just as the campers’ enthusiasms and fears are without subterfuge, filmmaking mostly does not have an agenda.”

All thumbs up

As a person—not just the mom of someone on the ASD spectrum—I  found myself falling in love with each of the young people highlighted in this film. They are creative, edgy, intelligent, and warm. They are nervous, daring, annoying, and deeply honest. Their enthusiasm for their world-building task is infectious. And those quirks and idiosyncrasies? I left this film with a feeling of hope. It is the hope that one day, the behaviors and ways of seeing the world that we now label and try to “fix” will be seen as normal threads in the broadcloth of what it means to be human. 

I wish I’d known about The Wayfinder Experience when my son was a teen struggling to make friends. We wanted nothing more for him than to be his whole self without shame or fear of being left out and stigmatized. 

“We Can Be Heroes” is a film for all ages and all neurotypes. It demonstrates what it looks like when all kids feel included and when the differences that make us each unique are worn like badges of honor and accepted without judgment. I hope a whole lot of  kids, especially adolescents and teens, see themselves in this film and celebrate.

Don’t miss it.

Read more:

Preview: SIFF 2024 family and youth line-up

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.