It’s the great irony of parenthood: The beings we give birth to will eventually become unknowable. Just how unknowable is apparent in the new documentary “Life, Animated
,” about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind
‘s autistic son, Owen. The movie is adapted from Suskind’s own book
by the same name, which chronicles how Owen disappeared into himself at age 3, losing crucial language skills, only to find a voice through animation and Disney movies after an autism diagnosis. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams
has known the Suskinds for years, and the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival
Ron Suskind has chronicled
Owen’s sudden degeneration from happy toddler to frustrated, quiet child and the family’s unconventional mode of reaching him through Disney, often talking in animated voices to sustain conversations they never thought they’d have again. Just try not to cry when the film cuts to home movies of Owen pre-diagnosis, an ostensibly average kid, playing swords and jumping up and down with his brother, Walter, at the sight of Mickey Mouse, no idea that one day those movies would be his sole salvation.
The documentary focuses less on Owen as a child and more on a pivotal year in the now-20-something’s life, when he graduates from school, moves into his own apartment and struggles with relationship issues like an everyday young adult.
“These are such human and relatable experiences; this is a coming-of-age film in many ways about someone who just happens to have autism,” says producer Julie Goldman.
The film humanizes Owen through hand-drawn animations and by following him in his day-to-day life. He spent much of his childhood being bullied and retreating into Disney cartoons as a way to make sense of the world, identifying strongly with “sidekick” characters who prevail in the end. He even founded a Disney Club at his school for other developmentally disabled kids, an offshoot of what the family has called “affinity therapy,” where Owen has been able to translate emotions in terms he can understand. (Spoiler alert: Gilbert Gottfried makes an appearance, re-enacting a scene from “Aladdin.”)
Interpreting life as a Disney movie has its challenges, though, and the most touching parts of the movie come when his protective older brother, Walter, tries to talk to him about complex guy stuff, like dating.
“What am I going to do? Get him Disney porn?” he asks, chuckling. Owen is having trouble with his girlfriend, Emily, but doesn’t have the means to express how he feels. Don’t things always end happily in Disney films, complete with chaste pecks on the cheek? Not always. Still, Walter is determined to protect his brother, and he’s the film’s unexpected, steadfast hero.
Audience reaction has been overwhelming, says Goldman.
“People with autism say, ‘This is the first time my story has been told.’ Seeing people react to Owen in this way is incredible. And then families, particularly siblings, because Walter is actually speaking what so many siblings feel and go through and don’t have a way to communicate. They have this responsibility,” she says.
At one point, Walter wonders what will happen when his parents are no longer around to take care of Owen. (Fittingly, Owen watches “Bambi” on his first night alone in his new apartment.)
But by the end of the movie, it’s obvious that Owen, against all odds, can take care of himself. He lands a job at a movie theater. He travels to Paris to speak about autism. Like so many of us, he wonders why life is unfair when his girlfriend breaks up with him. (Look for outtakes from his bar mitzvah in the DVD version.)
The Suskind family celebrating a birthday (Courtesy Allied Integrated Marketing)
“Watching an audience watch this film, they meet Owen, and they’re not so comfortable with him. By the end, they’re so comfortable. The transformation of the audience is one of the most wonderful parts of working on this film. Kids who might see Owen as the ‘other’ don’t see him like that anymore. Writ large, what can that do? Can it make it so other kids with challenges aren’t bullied?” Goldman wonders.
For his part, Owen is delighted by the movie. (“He came into our office and yelled, ‘I love it!'” Goldman reports.)
But this is more than a simple story of a boy with autism who grew into his own brand of hero. It’s also the story of parents who embraced his love of Disney and allowed him to thrive and communicate in the way he knew how.
“The Suskinds met their son where he is, and that’s something that can be replicated for all parents,” Goldman says.