There are personal films, and then there are personal films. Minneapolis filmmaker Shelli Ainsworth’s “Stay Then Go,” a project she has nurtured for a decade, is nothing less than a sample of her DNA on-screen.
The film, premiering regionally at 7 p.m. Friday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, is a fictionalized portrait of her relationship with her autistic son, Dietrich.
“Stay Then Go” is Ainsworth’s feature debut. Writing and directing it have been a long personal voyage. Her short films have appeared on PBS and at festivals and museums worldwide, and she is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the NEA, ITVS and the Bush, Jerome and McKnight Foundations. Yet this story, which she knew so well, presented specific challenges.
“I couldn’t crack the code on it,” she said. “It would have been so easy to make a documentary on Dietrich and coming of age and [autism] advocacy. Just easy-peasy. Cakewalk. But I’m not a documentary filmmaker, nor was I ever interested in making a literal, based-on-a-true-story movie. What I wanted to do was to take on as an artist a story that was truest to the emotional life of my experience.”
That meant developing a nonlinear structure and poetic tone allowing her to explore the difficult emotional realities of her loving and challenging relationship with her eldest son. “Developing some distance between that character and me was a rocky mountaintop journey,” she said. After two years of deliberation, she crafted her first shooting script for the film in 2007.
The film examines issues of guardianship and questions of how deeply invested you can be in the outcome of your child’s life. It stars Janel Moloney (of “The West Wing”) as a mother reviewing memories of her autistic son as she awaits his release from the hospital after a traffic accident. There, she comes to terms with her efforts to “take care of him and protect him throughout his young adult life in a way that she can’t possibly do anymore.”
Ainsworth calls the story “an emotional mystery that examines the limits of love and sacrifice. Taking care of him kind of becomes her second life.”
It’s a story she knows firsthand. As a child and young man, Dietrich found the world a challenging and mysterious place whose rules and routines seemed to elude him. His bond with his mother was strong, and so was his dependency. His emotional, social, therapeutic and academic needs and long-term prospects were for years a major focus of Ainsworth’s existence.
“Stay Then Go” is more than a disability drama, Ainsworth said. “It deals with issues of sacrifice. Are there limits to sacrifice?” After a pause, she said, “I kind of think not.”
“A therapist a long time ago said to us, ‘You can choose to have an autistic household. Or you can choose to have a household where a loved one has autism.’ I picked the second one, had two other children and tried to keep my hand in with my career.”
Now 26, Dietrich is living in a city apartment with assistance. His autism presents itself most strongly in terms of his struggles with language. He works as an artist, and his paintings have been exhibited by several local galleries. Like many a 26-year-old, he yearns for independence and a girlfriend.
“I wanted to make this movie to go out to people that Dietrich and I might encounter in the elevator,” Ainsworth said. “And if Dietrich’s humming or rocking, instead of that person being annoyed, if they saw ‘Stay Then Go’ their consciousness might be opened ever so slightly.”