LIFE, ANIMATED. Starring: Owen, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, and Walter Suskind. Also, Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman. Directed by Roger Ross Williams. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 92 min.
This American documentary film is based on a 2014 family memoir of the same name, and tells the story of Owen Suskind who stopped speaking at the age of three years. It is an intimate, highly personal account of the passage to young adulthood of an autistic boy, who used animated fantasy films to find his way through to reality.
Owen suffers from a condition known as "Pervasive Developmental Disorder". Such a person is typically overwhelmed by any change that occurs in the real world and the condition is a form of autism, and ordinarily regarded as incurable. At age 3, Owen lost the ability to walk by himself, and to speak in a way that could be understood. In his father's words, "someone kidnapped our son".
Owen Suskind is the second son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia. The documentary tracks the efforts of Owen's parents and his brother, Walter, to connect with him as he retreated into autism. At age 7, Owen started to show that he was escaping into Disney animation movies which he watched constantly. He began to echo conversations he heard in the Disney films, recited his favourite scenes from movies he was watching, and engaged in conversation with the voices he was hearing. His parents knew by their son's behaviour that an identity was emerging behind the prison of autism, and the film joyously conveys their response to "finding" their son.
Owen has memorised hundreds of Disney movies such as "Aladdin"' "The Little Mermaid", "Peter Pan", "Dumbo", and "The Lion King", and has taught himself to read through Disney film credits.
The film is an extraordinary record of the attempt by the movie's Director (Roger Ross Williams) to capture the world that Owen had excluded. Owen's special pathway to reality was Disney plots and Disney characters, because happy places and faces, vividly and brightly coloured, brought a world to him that was completely non-threatening, and "perfect Disney scripts" put order into a complex world by reducing his anxiety and helping him to stay calm. Owen first started to communicate through watching Disney's "The Little Mermaid", and it became apparent to his parents, that he was using Disney films to compare the characters he was seeing with his own life. Now, at 25 years, he has graduated from a special needs educational institute into an apartment where he lives by himself, and he has already experienced the pain of breaking-up with his girlfriend.
This is an inspirational documentary that moves expressively from sadness and disappointment to spontaneous joy and happiness, as Owen frustratingly tries to make sense of his own emotions. The effect of Disney on Owen is amazing, but the documentary shows equally powerfully the effect of the unconditional love given to Owen by his parents, and his caring brother. The documentary itself combines personal family footage with a variety of Disney animations in a technically integrated way. It focuses cleverly on brightly coloured animated cartoon characters across a range of Disney movies, and they communicate the fantasy images that are influencing Owen to respond.
This is an inspirational film about establishing human contact in a very unusual way. It is well-directed, well-produced (by Owen's father), and compassionate. Owen's autism is still evident, but there is hope for the future in the midst of his family's pain and joy. It offers a compelling account of how fantasy can therapeutically communicate significant aspects of emotional experience. But it also tells us honestly that Owen's journey is a continuing one. The movie shows us a "proud, autistic man" whose behaviour challenges mainstream perceptions of autism, and it movingly indicates a human being who is "growing " his independency with the love of those around him.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released September 29th., 2016