Tribeca: Life, Animated

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 He remained quiet and withdrawn for many years until his mother recognized a pattern in his gibberish – it was actually a line of dialogue from The Little Mermaid.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 slide-owen-drawingexaggerated 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 ZZ49547432can 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 Cg2IZfdWgAEvZadinteresting 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 himZZ15895CF1 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.

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23 thoughts on “Tribeca: Life, Animated

  1. ridicuryder

    Jay.

    I suspect we are all mildly autistic in that there are topics or areas of exchange where we definitely engage more. I see autistic children all the time as a RN…unfortunately, in a clinical environment where their level of anxiety makes it difficult to “plug in” to their style. Sometimes I get a thing going though…generally when the parents are a little more laid back.

    Thanks for featuring this…it’s a great message.

    Mark

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes, it would be difficult in a medical setting since a big problem is having too many stimuli to process at once – they hear\see\experience more environmental noise than the rest of us, so new and busy environments can be overwhelming. It’s lucky you can recognize that – probably a relief to the parents. You may have seen on the news that 50 cent just got called out for making fun of a young man who he thought was stoned. Turns out he’s autistic – knowing the difference is a big deal.

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  2. calensariel

    I would be so interested to see this one. We suspect our grandson Liam may be high-functioning autistic. Our daughter has finally started having someone work with him. I doubt the film will ever make it here to Utah. You guys do such a good job with these reviews, Jay, and they never make it to Utah. This is like the backwater of the US here… Sigh.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes, the higher end of the scale, especially in girls, can be harder to pin down. My cousin went through the same thing with her daughter, but with some extra therapy early on, she’s made leaps and bounds and she seems like any other little girl on her hockey team. Getting that help is so important, and I love that this film shows that even for kids on the other side of the spectrum, there can be help and hope for them too. I’ll keep my eye out and let you know if\when it becomes available on a site or to rent.

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    1. Jay Post author

      That’s right. Even non-verbal doesn’t mean non-communicative as I’m sure you’ve seen. They find different paths, which is remarkable.

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  3. Divorce With Me

    Didn’t know this has become a documentary! I read about this big years ago. It was an inspiring article so bringing it to life must have made it even more special. Must watch now! Thx!

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    1. Jay Post author

      It does make it more real for sure. The family’s pretty great. Obviously they had access to resources and money that lots of families don’t, but there’s lots of love and care there, as a unit. They also just seem like a normal family, not afraid to express the fear and sadness side of it, but mostly embracing the hope and the victories where they are.

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  4. Everyday Adventures at Home... Hurrah!

    Jay, what a wonderful write-up. Thanks for sharing, I’d not heard of it. There is often so much more depth to a person than we realize, and communication problems – whatever might cause them – can be a barrier that isolates the individual. I hope this film finds its way to Wpg theatres. Take care.

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  5. J.

    This sounds really pretty good. Even if it encouges parents or caregivers to look outside the box in their attempts to engage it’s a very wonderful thing. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for this one showing up over here – sounds like a truly charming and inspiring piece of work.

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  6. Jordan Dodd

    Wow. This sounds like an incredible doco. My epilepsy is apparently very similar to autism and I have several good friends who are on the spectrum. I too hope lots of people get to see this – including myself!

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  7. reocochran

    I saw the CBS Morning review of the book and interview with the parents. The father used puppets and I liked how we learned from the book, the son relates not to the hero, but the quirky side kick. I would enjoy this very much as my last real career job was as a preschool teacher for an integrated classroom of 4 typically developing children with eight children who had special needs. The Suskinds are inspirational, as well as those who read or see their story,. . . pass it on! 🙂

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  8. StephLove

    I just listened to the Radiolab story on this family from a couple years ago (I’ve been exploring their archives). From the comments here, it seems they’ve been all over the media. What an interesting story…

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