(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Roger Ross Williams
Autism has a history with the movies. Dustin Hoffman won a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance in Rain Man as an autistic man who takes a transformative road trip with Tom Cruise. Claire Danes played autistic scholar Temple Grandin and won an Emmy for the biopic. Mercury Rising with Bruce Willis, unfortunately, made autism a sci-fi adventure and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close used the condition to fuel a post-9/11 treasure hunt. The world of documentary even delivered Autism: The Musical in 2007. Something about the audio-visual power of the medium, perhaps, creates empathy and understanding, but in other cases, the awkward treatment of autism doesn’t do justice to those living with the condition. A director needs to present it with the right treatment and sensitivity to do the subject justice. Life, Animated does just that.
The film introduces subject Owen Suskind and his own history with the movies as director Roger Ross Williams chronicles Suskind’s experience with autism and his love for animated adventures. The film shows Owen’s early years in which his development mirrors that of many children as he plays boisterously and learns to speak as he articulates new words with care. A home movie of a sword fight between Owen and his father, Ron, which mirrors the swashbuckling of Peter Pan, is especially touching in developing the film’s power. Life, Animated simply shows the reality of living with autism every day. It’s a beautiful and moving journey.
Something then changes at the age of three, which Ron and Owen’s mother, Cornelia, liken to a vanishing act as they describe their son’s linguistic skills slipping away. Images of Owen babbling after speaking with inquisitive intelligence let the viewer appreciate how complex this development is for both Owen and his parents. Accounts of doctors and tests follow as the parents search for the boy they think they lost. Lost, that is, until Owen quotes one of the many Disney movies that he watches on repeat. The images of numerous Disney films flood the screen, which is an impressive range of material given Disney’s difficulty to access, and Suskind’s reaction shots offer accessible windows into the world Life, Animated explores.
Home movies show Owen enthralled with enthusiasm as the characters of the Disney world play on repeat and his parents explain how he memorised every word of every Disney film. This talent is no small feat, but it’s also a strong reminder of how little one knows what kind of energy flashes through another person’s mind. It turns out that the adventures of Ariel, Aladdin, Peter Pan, and Beauty and the Beast are more than mere flicks of light on the TV screen. They’re friends, allies, and teachers for Owen. They’re guides keeping his mind alight.
As Suskind’s parents share their story of watching a son transform and live in the quiet mysterious world of autism, Life, Animated puts the audience in the position of trying to understand and explore this condition from an outsider’s view. The film finds a common language though animation, which Williams seamlessly injects into the blend of interviews and observational footage. These animated interludes take the audience into a new territory that sees the world in unique perspectives. (The range of the film’s animated palettes plays a crucial role in this regard.) There’s a comfort to these animated images, but also an ineffable power that conveys the childlike wonder that entranced Owen to the movies as a youth, while being wonderfully intelligent strokes of filmmaking to communicate his maturity. The most memorable sequence is Ron’s poignant reflection of a day on which he took Owen’s stuffed puppet of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin, and tried speaking with his son. To his amazement, Ron recalls in his best Gilbert Gottfried voice, Owen spoke lucid sentences and confided to Iago just how hard it is to experience life without any friends.
Here’s where the film really works. On one hand, Life, Animated lets Owen tell his own story in his own words. On the other, the doc approaches autism from the perspective of the inquisitor. The film uses neither Suskind’s story nor that of his parents with an eye for sentimentality. Life, Animated creates an exchange between the son and his parents as he opens up and they in turn learn how to respond to his condition and create an environment that helps him grow. Life, Animated will move audiences with its undeniably inspiring and empowering tale, but it favours compassion and understanding over emotional payoff.
The images of Suskind as an adult show the enduring power that movies have over Owen, but they also show how he imparts the Disney magic with fellow autistic adults and teens. He creates a community through shared experience as he forms a Disney club in which binge-watching and quote-alongs are vehicles for developing social skills and confidence. Favouring a verité style that observes both Owen’s enthusiasm for movies and the tireless devotion of his parents and brother, Life, Animated puts the audience in the headspace of different members of the Suskind family as Owen prepares to leave the home and live independently in a new condo.
Williams, who previously won an Oscar for the short documentary Music for Prudence and helmed the 2013 feature God Loves Uganda, makes a notable leap forward as a filmmaker with Life, Animated. This doc is the work of a virtuoso. The mix of observational footage and interviews allow various members of the Suskind family to share their experiences with clarity, while the emotional authenticity of the animated sequences is exceptional. Life, Animated brings the audience into Suskind’s mind with great honesty, integrity, and care as Williams avoids pat narratives of overcoming adversity and achieving heroic feats.
It seems fitting that Life, Animated takes a different path than that of the hero’s journey, since Suskind doesn’t identify with the leading men and charming princes of the Disney kingdom. He instead shares a special bond with the Quasimodos, the Iagos, the Pumbas, and the Jiminy Crickets. Images of Owen’s drawings of all the Disney sidekicks champion him as a keeper of the underdogs, while his own story avoids the kiss at the end of the rainbow yet finds happily ever after.