VOD Review: Life, Animated.
A documentary that explores how an autistic man used his love of Disney films to communicate with the world.
This Oscar nominated documentary explores the life of Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who lost his ability to communicate with the outside world at a very young age. It delves into many of the hurdles facing autistic people and their families, yet remains uniquely the story of Owen, and how his fascination with Disney animated features allowed him to process the world around him and share his inner life with others.
The film uses a mixture of home videos, interviews, and animation to document his life, while following his day to day activities, culminating in a speech Owen gives to a conference on Autistic Spectrum Disorder in France. It is an emotionally powerful inspection of one family’s journey. While I wish it had done more to tie this moving story into the wider discussion of autism, it is nevertheless a compelling documentary.
Life, Animated (2016)
At the age of three, Owen Suskind began to display cognitive and physical signs of autism. This included loss of coordination, regression in behavioral skills, and the near total loss of his ability to speak or communicate. His family took him to specialists, but ASD was poorly understood at the time. The fate of their child was simply unknown.
Years later, a chance utterance came while Owen was watching his favorite movies: Disney animated features. Later, his parents discovered that not only was Owen memorizing the dialogues and mannerisms from his favorite films, but he was using their idealized and streamlined stories to process and understand the world around him. Eventually, Owen was able to make himself understood through that very medium, even constructing his own works of fiction inside a shared Disney universe. His breakthroughs gave an insight into how some autistic people experience life.
While Autistic Spectrum Disorder is slowly emerging from the fog of misunderstanding, fear and pseudoscience, this documentary is firmly the story of one family. Thanks to home videos and animated recreations, we get a unique perspective into many of the stages of Owen’s development and growth. It is a deeply intimate portrait. Interviews show us the many hurdles in the life of the Suskinds, and following Owen in his daily routine illustrates all of the ways that his experience is both isolated and universal.
He struggles with school bullies, hosts a film series of his favorite cartoons, navigates the intricacies of having a girlfriend, and searches for a job. All of the events of a normal life, but given new context and significance due to his condition. Owen relates to the regular world in a unique manner that offers insight and opportunity for empathy.
Blending Form and Function.
Director Roger Ross Williams (who won the Academy Award for short documentary with Music by Prudence) weaves animation into the entirety of his feature. There are salient moments from famous Disney films, but also unique animated sequences in a flowing charcoal pencil style. These sequences illustrate life from Owen’s perspective. The riot of inputs that often deter and silence him are made visceral and real to the audience. When the film discusses Owen’s difficulties discerning relevant voices from the cacophony of modern life, the sounds and images mimic that sensation. It is highly effective.
Another excellent function of the animation is to give form to Owen’s own creations. His series of stories about a young boy tasked with guarding all of the forgotten sidekicks in the Disney universe is a unique window into his experience with autism. The characters are harried by a villain who can create a frightening fog that clouds a persons thinking and confuses the way they see the world. In short, a cloud that recreates Owen’s experiences at the onset of his disorder.
Owen’s use of story serves two purposes. It explains to others how he experiences his condition, and allows him a cathartic vehicle to respond. The stories of Disney helped him to normalize his world, but Disney stories can’t mimic all of the situations a mature person will experience. Taking a creative control of those stories allows him to problem solve and to work through his expanding choices as a young man with greater self determination.
One detraction I have with Life, Animated is that it misses several opportunities to expand the conversation. Early, Owen’s father Ron relates how a specialist had to explain to him what autism meant. The scene then changes without sharing that explanation. There is so much confusion and misunderstanding about the condition, it was a prime opportunity to teach the audience. It passes by.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder is not one air-tight condition, but many overlapping symptoms and behavioral patterns. It would not only be impossible to define all of autism based on Owen’s case, but it would be irresponsible. Owen’s condition is as unique as the next child…but there are still some important general points that could be made. Points that need to be made. In this day and age where some view it as a curse that needs to be bleached, or prayed, or tortured away, our society is in dire need of solid scientific discussion of autism. You can avoid making Owen’s story a one-size-fits-all reduction of autism while still educating more broadly about the condition.
A Jumping Off Point.
Overall, this film is a compelling documentary that just falls shy of being an indispensable part of the conversation. It is well crafted and emotionally potent, and it blends its elements together in a beautiful and effective manner. Owen’s story is fascinating, and it allows us insight into an often stigmatized world. Perhaps Owen’s charm and the accessibility of his experiences will motivate those who see it to explore more deeply and to get to know more about autism. It is just a shame that the film misses the opportunity to further that important work.