When you get to see a movie like this, it’s kind of a privilege to get to talk about it.
Life, Animated is a documentary featuring the amazing Suskind family. Actually a fairly typical, loving American family who happen to have a son named Owen who’s autistic.
Owen, the youngest of two boys, was a happy and rambunctious little 3 year old when autism reared its head, and suddenly the Suskinds had a boy who wouldn’t talk and who’d lost many of his newly-acquired toddler abilities and motor skills. He remained quiet and withdrawn for many years until his mother recognized a pattern in his gibberish – it was actually a line of dialogue from The Little Mermaid.
Owen was a big fan of Disney cartoons and often watched them with his family. What they hadn’t realized until then was that Owen wasn’t just watching them, he was studying them. He’d already memorized the complete scripts of several movies, and was learning to equate emotions with the exaggerated facial features on his favourite cartoon characters. One day Owen’s father is able to hold his first conversation with him in years simply by pretending to be Iago, the talking parrot from Aladdin.
Fast forward to today, and Owen is a bright young adult. He’s learning skills to help him be more independent, and when he graduates, he’ll be moving into his own condo in a group home. Owen has flourished because his family was able to communicate with him through his beloved Disney movies. Disney canon became their family bible and Owen came out of the autism shell because of it. The Suskind family knows that Disney films won’t do it for all autistic kids, but they are encouraging families to find that one thing their child is passionate about, and to make it family culture. This is how they brought back their son and they only wish the same for others.
Owen’s dad Ron met the filmmaker, Roger Ross Williams (technically the first black Oscar-winning director, for a short he did in 2010), when both worked at Night Line. Ron had just written a book about his family’s experience and thought it might make an interesting documentary. Williams agreed. So do I.
I don’t know about this film’s potential to “save” other autistic kids. Owen is of course still autistic, but his parents and his brother can reach him now, they can express their love and see it reflected back, even if it’s a line originally quoted by Belle to the Beast. What I do know is that this film opens a lot of doors. This isn’t just a talking-head piece, we actually get to visit with Owen in his new situation, and his family as they continue to take on new challenges. We get to see autism in action, impacting a family and influencing a community. And we get to see that Owen is a guy with wants and needs like any other. He expresses them differently, and once you get the hang of his language, it’s not necessarily even worse, it’s just different.
Now as a young man, there’s still nothing Owen likes better than to chill with a Disney flick. When he’s feeling anxious, it’s 3 scenes of Dumbo. When he needs to overcome odds, Hercules will do the trick. When he grapples with growing up, it’s The Lion King to the rescue. It’s a code, but once deciphered, it’s actually pretty ingenious.
I do hope loads and loads of people will see this, and be encouraged to start a dialogue about what autism is and how we can all be part of a workable solution. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means not all are like Owen. Some will be more or less affected, but I think the takeaway is that perhaps all lives could be improved if only we were looking for the right kinds of answers.
This isn’t the first documentary to look at autism, but what makes this one so interesting and watchable is Owen himself, a very dynamic individual. He’s at his best at the helm of his Disney Club, where other learning-disabled young people gather to watch and discuss Disney animation. They may even run lines afterward, or play the score, and once in a while Jonathan Freeman, voice of Aladdin’s villain Jafar, drops in to lend a hand, and even Gilbert Gottfried, voice of Iago himself, has attended, but nobody knows the lines better than Owen himself.
Owen proved this at our screening at the Tribeca festival where he proudly put his skill on display, playing opposite Gilbert Gottfried, and even feeding him the lines. Many of the film’s crew were on hand, as well as the entire Suskind family, to launch this movie into orbit. There’s a lot of love and care gone into this work, and some of the best bits are when Owen’s own stories are beautifully animated (by Mac Guff). Owen identifies more with the sidekicks rather than the heroes of his beloved films, and he brings them to life in a very moving way.
They hope to take it to theatres this summer and I hope that you will all take the time to see it – it’s something special.