Sandi Frelly, quality assurance director for Community Partnerships of Idaho, was interrupted repeatedly. It couldn't have been more delightful.
"This is such a great day. Let me tell you about..." said Frelly, stopping mid-sentence when she spotted some familiar faces across the lobby of the Country Club Reel Theatre on Overland Road. "Sorry, I'll be right back."
Frelly sprinted to the other side of the room with open arms and a wide smile.
"Hellooooo," she cooed as the face of a young man on the autism spectrum lit up with an equally joyous expression. The scene repeated about a dozen times as Frelly and her colleagues greeted the many families coming to the movie theater for a program called "Reel Movies for Real Needs." It's a special kind of magic at the movies.
Community Partnerships, in conjunction with the local owners of the Reel Theatre, open early on the first Saturday of each month and swing the doors open for individuals with sensory sensitivities to enjoy a movie with their families and friends. The house lights are dimmed but stay on, the volume is lowered a bit and the doors are kept open so attendees aren't affected by sensory overload.
Inside the cinema, a few minutes after a family had settled in, another group sat in the row directly in front of them, which prompted a parent from the back row to whisper to the family, "I'm sorry. You probably don't want to sit there. My son may kick your seat."
The parent in the front row leaned back, smiled and said, "Isn't that what it's all about?"
Both sets of parents enjoyed a big laugh and turned their attention to the screen where Po (voiced by Jack Black), his father Li Chan (Bryan Cranston) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie) were having a grand-old time in Kung Fu Panda 3.
The film is full of energy, gorgeous animation and life-lessons such as "be all you can be." Boise Weekly has attended Reel Movies for Real Needs screenings several times over the years and we can tell you, the real beauty isn't on the screen, no matter what the movie. It's in the chaos happening in the theater. There are shrieks, kids walking around, plenty of loud talking and even the occasional seat being kicked, but above all is the unbridled joy of children of all ages and the uncompromised relief of their parents and caregivers who get to embrace the rare opportunity of taking the entire family to a movie theater without explaining or apologizing for anything.
"We had a family come a few months ago, and they looked worried when they said, 'We honestly don't know if our son will make it through the whole movie.' We said, 'That's really, really OK.' And you know what? They didn't," Frelly said. "They were here about 20 minutes before they had to leave, but they came back again and stayed a bit longer. And it's not as if they were out $30."
They may not have even been out $10. That's because Reel Theatre charges only $1 per person during Reel Movies for Real Needs, the same amount the theater charged when the program started nearly a decade ago.
"I was with Easter Seals at the time and I was working with a good many kids with autism," said Frelly. "I approached Reel Theatre and they said, 'Absolutely.' Now, I'm with Community Partnerships, and I asked again, and they said absolutely again. They're amazing people, because they open early, bring in an entire team of employees, and I'm sure they're not making any money off of any of this. It's their gift to the community."
The movies are always family-friendly (rated G or PG) and the program's popularity has grown markedly.
"I remember when you were here a few years ago; and honestly a few families would come back then," Frelly told BW. "But we've stuck with it all these years."
As we watched, the theater slowly began to fill with dozens of families, all of them anticipating a great time.
"Isn't this the best, and..." Frelly stopped again, mid-sentence. "Sorry, I have to go say hi." And off she went with another hug for another familiar face.