Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Life, Animated: Feel Good Documentary on Autism Also Feels Authentic

This 2016 documentary looks at the life of Owen Suskind, who is autistic.
Feel-good films just as often inspire sneers as cheers in this cynical era. Life, Animated unabashedly aims to inspire uplift, and offers plenty of potential for jeers: an endearing protagonist who struggles with autism; Disney movies which provide the conduit of communication; a loving family; a counseling crew that is as large as they are supportive; and obstacles that are all successfully overcome. All this in one movie!

Some people might feel that this all belongs in a Disney movie. I came away with the conviction that the people in Owen Suskind’s life, and the filmmakers telling his story, were absolutely sincere. My BS barometer seldom fails me.

Director Roger Ross Williams and Owen Suskind.
Owen with brother Walt and parents Cornelia and Ron Suskind.
Aside from director Roger Ross Williams’ skillful and empathetic storytelling, I think Williams was incredibly lucky to have parents who are intelligent journalists to work with, and a subject who is remarkably unself-conscious and direct. This documentary couldn’t have had such emotional impact without their admirable openness.

Owen, with Mickey Mouse!
Owen’s obsession with Disney films started as a coping mechanism with his lack of ability to communicate with other people. Then Disney became the soundtrack of Owen Suskind’s life. Watching this documentary, I thought of how many people, myself included, who still rely on childhood passions/obsessions for comfort or as a reference point. In my family, I thought of my own movie mania, a sister who is cuckoo for Christmas, a brother who watches westerns over and over, and another brother who is fanatical about childhood TV shows. How much different is Owen’s obsessive Disney frame of reference, really?

Suskind writes for the WSJ.
An example of some of the stunning animation of "Life, Animated."
While Life, Animated is based on father Ron Suskind’s book, director Williams wanted to focus on Owen’s current life. Home movies and family recollections give us Owen’s back story, emphasized with significant Disney clips and some stunning original animation by French design company Mac Guff. Williams takes all of these elements and weaves them beautifully together.

According to his father, Owen seemed like a normal boy until the age of three, and then he “vanished.” Owen seems to be treading water until one day he spouts what seems gibberish, but in fact is a line from The Little Mermaid: “Just your voice.”

Graduating Owen faces his future.
Was it autistic repetition or a real breakthrough? The effusive father and nurturing mother decide to take it as a positive sign. The cartoonish emotions and expressions of Disney characters gave Owen social cues to communicate. The struggle is long, but not really shown. Supportive brother Walt talks emotionally about Owen getting bullied in school. But after the childhood scenes, we are in the present as Owen is getting ready to graduate from school and the family nest. To me, this is the only downside of the Life, Animated. I wondered how Owen’s autism affected his parents’ marriage, careers, finances, and relationship with his brother. Helping Owen meet his challenges must have been exhausting at times, yet isn’t depicted.

Owen Suskind with one of his idols, "Aladdin" star Gilbert Gottfried.
Owen’s graduation, his move into an assisted living apartment, and romantic problems, are shown with humor and heart. All those watershed moments in life that are so big to each of us at the time, must have seemed epic to Owen. You would have to be a stone not to be moved as the Suskinds leave Owen after helping move him into his own place. Yet there are many chuckles, like his parents helping Owen pack ALL those Disney movies.

The most haunting part of the movie is when Owen’s parents and brother discuss his future, once the Suskind’s are gone, and their son Walt’s inherited responsibilities.

Once Owen navigates his childhood and teen years, it’s funny and touching to see his unfiltered reactions to breaking up with his girlfriend or getting his first job, at a movie theater, of course. The finale shows Owen accepting an invitation to speak on autism at a conference in France.

Yes, it’s a feel-good finale, but Life, Animated feels for real.

No comments:

Post a Comment