"Heart Child" is an emotionally charged documentary film about Crys Worley, her family and the nonprofit (A.skate) she founded after being inspired by her autistic son, Sasha, and his response to skateboarding.
The filmmakers, Ben Duffy and Michael Sassano, are both recent graduates of the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York City. Director/producer Duffy and cameraman/editor Sassano are longtime friends who have skated together since they were kids. They also grew up alongside Sassano's brother, who has autism.
Skating was Duffy's introduction to filmmaking.
"I'm not sure exactly how long I've been making films, but I know that the first thing I ever pointed a camera at was people skateboarding, and that was 10 years ago," he explained.
Duffy learned about A.skate online.
"I had seen a post about what [Crys Worley] does with A.skate on the Internet and I was like, 'Whoa, this is amazing.' It spoke volumes to me. So I hit up the email address that was on the website and sure enough she called me back. I told her I wanted to help any way I could, and that happened to work out with a camera," Duffy said.
He realized there was a story to tell and approached his childhood friend Sassano with the proposal of making a feature-length documentary about Worley's family and A.skate.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental brain disorder characterized by a wide range of symptoms including social impairment, communication difficulties and varying degrees of disability. Frequently, children with autism will have a hard time relating to others and isolate within themselves. This was the case with Sasha Worley until he found skateboarding and began bonding with his mother.
A.skate is the Alabama-based nonprofit Worley established in response to the healing, connectivity and joy she had seen brought to her autistic son through skateboarding and her wish to share that possibility of relief and engagement with other autistic children and their families.
The film seamlessly threads together multiple storylines. It's the story of a single mother raising her two sons, one of whom is autistic. "Heart Child" shows Worley addressing and overcoming her own incredibly challenging health issues. Setting the framework for the film is the story of a woman launching a nonprofit organization that was initially financed out of Worley's pocket.
"Heart Child" literally puts you into the Worley family. To achieve such an intimate portrayal, the filmmakers integrated themselves.
"Me and my best friend, Mike Sassano, went down and lived with the Worleys for 10 days. The Worleys are so family-orientated and it was really refreshing. I loved watching the way Crys cared for her kids, and it made me and Mike just want to pop out the camera every second. Everything was interesting to me," Duffy said.
In addition to filming in Alabama, Duffy and Sassano accompanied the Worleys and A.skate on the road.
"We went to Ireland to film the first international A.skate clinic, and that was amazing," Duffy said. "There were also a couple of California, New York and New Jersey filming sessions as well. But yeah, those 10 days in Alabama were very eventful."
Talking to Duffy, the impact that making this film has made on the young filmmaker is palpable
"I've learned that I am a 23-year-old New York version of Sasha Worley. I relate so much to children on the spectrum. The older I get, the more I become aware of my lack of ability to connect to simple day-to-day things with my brain," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I am on the spectrum. Oftentimes people on the spectrum don't have any outlet to channel their intensity into, but oftentimes they do. For me it's skateboarding and filmmaking; for Sasha, it's skateboarding and designing car washes on computer programs."
"Heart Child" was produced on a limited budget and its post-production was completed through a Kickstarter fund, which Duffy launched to edit the film. The filmmakers have applied to numerous film festivals and are hopeful that they will find the right distribution.
In the meantime, the film has recently gotten a lot of attention through a partnership with skate footwear giant Vans, which has been promoting the film online. Scott Byrer, marketing manager for Vans' online channel, Offthewall.tv, said, "Vans has been a supporter of A.skate for a while and when we learned that a documentary was being made, we wanted to help spread the word about the film using our social networks and video platforms."
Much like Crys Worley, what matters most to Duffy is that this film finds the audience that needs it: the parents of kids affected by autism.
"I truly hope that this film is used as a tool for parents who have children with ASD," he said. "I want the film to find the right home, as far as distribution goes, but even more than that, I want the parents to be able to find this film. As for Crys and her family, I'd like to see life get lighter for them. She has certainly struggled a great deal in her own life and she did not have to put this extra burden on herself, but she did because she has a huge heart. I want to see all of her hard work be championed by an autism entity."
This film deserves legitimate distribution, as it's not only an incredible film, but a story that needs to be told. It has the potential to truly help people.