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Heartwarming “Out of My Mind” Highlights the Importance of Disability Advocacy

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: (L–R) Judith Light, Rosemarie Dewitt, Luke Kirby, Michael Chernus, Phoebe-Rae Taylor, Sharon M. Draper, Amber Sealey, and Courtney Taylor attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Out of My Mind” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 19, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

For the team onstage at the Q&A after Out of My Mind, which premiered on January 19 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, this emotional moment has been a long time coming. 

“I love Sundance. It’s been a dream of mine to get a feature in the Festival for about 15 years. It feels really special that this is the one,” says director Amber Sealey, who previously screened her short film How Does It Start at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. “I think everything happens for a reason. There was a reason why I couldn’t get in for 15 years. Because it was meant to be this special movie,” she continues. “I made six films and this is the first one I’ve ever made where I’m like, ‘I think everyone should see this movie.’”

Producer Peter Saraf first considered the project, which screens in the 2024 Sundance Film Festival’s Family Matinee section, when his daughter read the novel by Sharon M. Draper upon which the film is based. “She read it in the fourth grade, and she pitched it to me as a movie,” he says. “And she was right! My daughter is now a sophomore in college, or, as I like to say, in the 14th grade, so it took 10 years to bring this to the screen, but it’s here!”

Mostly, the film is worth the wait because of the main actor’s pitch-perfect performance. “The world was waiting for Phoebe-Rae Taylor,” says Saraf.

Taylor plays Melody, a nonverbal wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. Melody’s been in the same class for years, but she’s extremely bright and longs for more — both in and outside the classroom. With help from her parents and an unexpected advocate, Melody starts attending standard sixth grade classes and faces new challenges among her peers and from the school administration.  

It was important for Sealey to approach the casting process with the goal of authenticity. That meant finding a young actor with cerebral palsy. Enter Phoebe-Rae Taylor, who didn’t have any acting aspirations before she joined the production. “I have never acted in my life, ever, apart from this,” says Taylor. “It really came as a surprise, and I’m so grateful I got this opportunity.”

For a newcomer, Taylor’s performance is extraordinary. Her nuanced portrayal reflects both the joys and frustrations that Melody experiences as a girl about to enter her teenage years, and her chemistry with her onscreen parents (played by Rosemarie Dewitt and Luke Kirby) is both heartwarming and believable. 

“It’s quite uncanny, really, how much I related to Melody,” says Taylor, citing that she has experienced many of the same situations that Melody encounters in the film, including hurtful and ignorant comments from others. “I think that really helped me to get into the character. I just really related to her, a lot.”

Emotions run high during the Q&A, following a standing ovation that continued through the film’s ending credits. Audience members include individuals working in special education, others who have family members with disabilities, and even a former student of Draper’s high school English class. 

“I like making people cry,” jokes Sealey. Joking or not, she succeeded. But whether through tears or laughter or words of effusive gratitude, everyone in the theater, both on and offstage, comes to the same conclusion: This film needs to be shown everywhere.