Nobody ever says coming of age is easy. Every teenager yearns to be better understood by friends, family, and perfect strangers alike, and even for many of the most outwardly confident high school students, the reality of growing up is one of unavoidable trial and error, of pleasure and disappointment, a challenging process of groping through the dark.
For the four Texan teens at the center of The Eyes of Me, a new documentary from independent producer Keith Maitlin, such darkness is not a metaphor. Nor is it necessarily oppressive. It is simply a reality. These young men and women are students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI).
To call TSBVI a “special” school would be accurate and diminishing all at once. As explored by Maitlin’s film, the only special quality about TSBVI is that its students are treated as people to be challenged and enriched rather than as objects of pity to be swept smoothly towards a diploma. To witness the impact of such a learning environment on the kids who study there will no doubt be refreshing, perhaps even inspiring, to students (and parents of students) all too familiar with the diminishing returns of academic politics for many young people with disabilities.
Not that Maitlin’s film is all that interested in classroom life, anyway. Much like the four students it tracks through a school year at TSBVI, The Eyes of Me gets by on equal measures of listlessness and charm, generally keeping things positive and genial for grown-ups and kids alike, and flitting from school plays to broken hearts with only a few casual gestures at introspection in between. This is high school, after all.
If The Eyes of Me never truly finds its center as a narrative experience, it does find an abundance of warmth and exuberance in Denise, a once-shy freshman who gradually blossoms at TSBVI. Once rejected at a play audition because of her visual impairment, Denise nevertheless embraces all that her new school has to offer, attending Prom, hosting her Sweet Sixteen party, and playing Cinderella in the TSBVI production of “Into the Woods.” It is the force of Denise’s personality, in fact, her graciousness and open-heartedness, that carries The Eyes of Me through even some of its most rushed sequences and lands the film’s most satisfying emotional effect.
But it’s the dynamic aspiring musician Chas, a senior freshly emancipated from his family, who provides the film with both its title and its unique sense of pragmatism. “I’m tired of school, straight up,” Chas tells us as a statement of fact rather than apology. Demonstrating the sort of clarity of focus that Maitlin finds in none of his other subjects, Chas pursues a music career that seems far more substantive than a casual high school lark. He’s talented, driven, and wise beyond his years, as conveyed powerfully through his song “The Eyes of Me,” the development of which Maitlin’s film documents. “Everything seems to be crumbling down,” Chas tells us in an interview segment that follows the dual realizations that his landlord plans to evict him and that his mother has once again flaked on an opportunity to visit. “But I will never ever let a single boulder touch me.” After spending just a handful of moments with this guy, we can’t help but believe him.
Lost somewhere between the appealing sweetness of Denise and the unshakable confidence of Chas are Meagan and Isaac, two TSBVI students who seem to have a clearer sense of who they are than does the film. Meagan is a high-achieving senior whose interview segments occasionally veer into feel-good platitudes and whose goals the film leaves vague, aside from that of becoming valedictorian. Isaac, a freshman, is more troubled and potentially more interesting, since he is still adjusting to his relatively recent impairment and eventually finds himself in a sticky situation at school. But rather than explore the catalyst and outcome of Isaac’s bad behavior, Maitlin keeps the details fuzzy and essentially drops Isaac altogether. Given the likely rawness of Isaac’s experience with disability, his notable lack of screen time and abrupt dismissal can’t help but leave his story feeling like a missed opportunity.
In the end, The Eyes of Me is a smoothly-produced mixed bag, bolstered by a pair of winning personalities in Chas and Denise. Though it never probes too deeply into the lives of its subjects, or into the uncomfortable fringes of their condition, the project manages to sidestep the all-too-frequent “disability film” trope, resisting the urge to spin its subjects into saints, martyrs, and made-to-order tearjerkers. These are just like-able kids. And they’re well worth an hour of your time.