Life, Animated – A Film Review




Life, Animated

Film review by Thomas W. Campbell

Update:  Life, Animated was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the best documentaries of the year.

On Monday, June 20, 2016 I moderated a National Board of Review after-screening Q and A of the new documentary Life, Animated. The participants were Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ron Suskind, his wife Cornelia, his son Owen, Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams, and Producer Julie Goldman (Weiner, Best of Enemies). The film, released on June 24, is about the life of Owen Suskind, who fell suddenly victim to the silence of autism when he was three years old. First told in 2014’s New York Times best seller Life, Animated (The story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism), the film picks up where the book leaves off, following Owen’s tentative steps into adulthood and self-reliance. Owen and his father Ron were able to stay for a short time before making off to a television interview and then a fuller discussion took place with the director, Cornelia and Ms. Goldman.  The complexity of bringing Owen on the publicity tour was on everyone’s mind but he seemed comfortable and not only answered questions about his experiences but shared some funny and precise impressions from his massive catalog of film and animation knowledge.

Life, Animated begins with a series of shots revealing Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, walking around a parking lot in what seems an aimless circle and talking to himself in a cryptic and indecipherable manner. It’s the fear of anyone who knows an autistic person – that they will lose their way and you will not be able to help them find their way back. Can someone help this young man? Can he help himself? Putting us in a subjective place where we feel and experience the disorienting nature of autism is one of many strengths of this engaging, informative and ultimately entertaining documentary.

The book by Ron Suskind, Life, Animated (The story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism), which the film is based on, is over 350 rich, thoughtful and dramatic pages. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions – revealing in an honest, even unflinching way the complexities of the autistic experience from the parent and child’s point of view. There are complexities that a novice could never imagine. Having a child who is born into the autistic experience is a life uprooting experience. Having a “normal” child who, at the age of three, suddenly becomes one of these “different” children is arguably even more life-shaking.

Life, Animated picks up this story and moves forward though Owen’s life after graduation while dipping back in time, using photographs, occasional clips of home movies, and first person interviews with Ron, his wife Cornelia, and Walt, Owen’s older brother. We see a video, alluded to in the book as the turning point in the Suskind family life, of Owen and his father playing in the backyard, laughing and romping in a lawn of fallen leaves.  It would be the last memory of Owen, barely three years old at the time, before “the change”. Ron describes the impact as being akin to his own son’s “kidnapping” – a complete psychological disappearance of the boy he once knew.

The Suskinds struggled for answers, talking to professionals, losing hope. And then, two years after Owen went silent, there came a series of unexpected revelations.  Before the change he was joined by his older brother Walt, and often by his father and mom, in a ritual shared across the world by families with young children at the time – watching VHS copies of their favorite Disney animations. When Owen “went away” these viewings were the one continuity in his before-and-after life. If anything, Owen became even more engaged with the films – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King – and began to spend increasing amounts of private time with them. One day Ron and Cornelia heard something that sounded like “juice” – heartened they poured him one kind after another but he would not take it. Later they saw him rewind a sequence he had already watched, and then rewind it again. And then again. It was a song, and the final line of the performance was “Just the voice”.  Owen repeated the line – he was not just “parroting”, he was communicating about his own voice. It was the kind of breakthrough the Suskind’s had prayed for. And the beginning of a remarkable journey of hope and discovery.

Animation is is used in three ways to bring life – and clarity – to the story. Excerpts from the Disney films are used to share and illustrate Owen’s self discovery and expression.  Black and white ink and water color animation is used for recreations that bring us back in time to events experienced by Owen as a child. And vivid color animation is used to bring Owen’s own screenplay to life, to illustrate his core belief that “No Sidekick is left behind”.

It is a testament to the producers that they were able to get complete cooperation from Disney and have access to the Disney catalogue. Owen only truly comes alive in his relationship to the films that are the core part of his life. Disney films, it turns out, are a great attraction not only to young minds but also to people with autistic-like symptoms who have difficulty decoding visual cues. Walt Disney literally told his artists, after the commercial failure of his first animated film, that the key to success was in the face – full, animated, exaggerated expression of all emotions would be the Disney way. And it worked. The next film was a huge success and the Disney formula had gained one if its’ most important cornerstones. And these expansive and expressive displays of emotion – in the face and across the entire body – offered a way into life for many people that Disney could never have imagined.

Previous films by Roger Ross Williams include the deeply moving Music for Prudence, a documentary about a physically disabled young woman in Zimbabwe who finds her voice in a society known for killing the disabled at birth and God Loves Uganda, about the way religion is used to marginalize homosexuality. He has crafted Life, Animated with assurance, intelligence and style. He has known the Suskinds since Owen was a young man, working with Ron on television documentaries and journalism stories, and was the only filmmaker they could imagine adapting the book to the screen. But he knew little about autism when he began the project and has discussed how making the film has given him a perspective into a world he could only have imagined. Understanding that hearing at times will create barriers in autism by garbling and mixing sounds in ways that prevent comprehension, he uses sound design to vividly recreate this experience for a young Owen.

An intimate director who works close to his subjects, Williams borrowed a shooting technique known as “the interrotron” from Errol Morris, who perfected a behind the TV screen camera apparatus that allows the interviewee to see the director’ face on a television monitor while the camera shoots the subject through the glass. This is a deceptively simple and powerful technique that disarms the speaker and has become a common tool in Morris’s brilliant documentary toolbox. Williams uses it to create big facial closeups during interview sessions which are all the easier for Owen to decode and react to. We look through the camera into the eyes of a joyful and engaged young man, inspired by the trust engendered from his relationship to the onscreen images. In one instance Owen watches us intensely from an extreme closeup, undergoing strange and exaggerated facial contortions that elevate rapidly from wonder to fear. Lips purse, his tongue wags, his eyes radiate deep concern. Then we see what he is watching – The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Quasimodo being tricked into a false friendship that turns into humiliation when he is tormented by a cruel and angry crowd.

Williams works with cinematographer Tom Bergmann to “be there” for the ordinary and the transformative moments in Owen’s life. We visit The Disney Club, Owen’s great achievement for himself and numerous other “different” children who share their love and deep knowledge of the Disney Universe. To the surprise of administrators the students not only showed up – but they brought passion and commitment. With his father’s help Owen has developed deep and mutual friendships with numerous actors from the Disney world. The film documents a visit by actors Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, who joyfully struggle to match the enthusiasm and acting chops of the kids around them.

Life, Animated is a film that can open doors into the minds and experiences of the autistic, the “different”, and those who care for and love them. It is a powerful introduction to how difficult and how rewarding a relationship with these often misunderstood sons, daughters, parents, and friends can be. Using well-designed animation (all of it the hand-drawn variety that Owen loves) a thoughtful and carefully constructed soundtrack, and patient storytelling, the film brings us into Owen’s world in a way that touches the heart and informs the mind.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Film Review


It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

On September 14, 2010 I did a Q & A with cast and crew of It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The filmmaking partners Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were young, sharp, engaging and fun and Emma Roberts, of Nancy Drew fame, was engaging as well. Zack Galifianakis came in late (others have done it, we’re just glad to have you here) and then pretended to fall asleep the moment he sat down. It was perplexing, and extra fun when he finally woke up. They cared about the small film and we discussed the research and character work that were part of the film experience.

Link to original NBR review

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is kind of a comedy about a subject that isn’t easy to find the humor in. The main characters – Craig, a suicidal 16 year old boy, Bobby, a suicidal 40-something man, and Noelle, a 17 year old girl with her own problems – find each other in a Brooklyn psychiatric ward where their lives become intertwined. Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, who ended up in a psychiatric ward himself because of the pressures to repeat the success of his first book, Funny Story is the third feature film written and directed by the filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

As in Boden and Fleck’s previous features, Half-Nelson and Sugar, the theme is one of discovery and overcoming odds. The story is told from the point-of-view of Craig, who checks himself into a mental hospital only to discover that the youth ward is closed to renovation and he will have to stay with the adults. Craig is a middle class boy with too much pressure on his shoulders. Surprised and overwhelmed to have been accepted into the most elite private school in Manhattan he has become an outsider among his own friends. Adding to his angst, the girl he likes has become his best friend’s girlfriend and his father relentlessly pressures him about career achievement. And he seems to have a chemical imbalance for which he has stopped taking his medication.
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Let Me In – Film Review

Let Me In

Let Me In
Directed by Matt Reeves
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

Directed and adapted by Matt Reeves (who worked in television before directing Cloverfield in 2008), Let Me In (2010) is an inspired and faithful remake of Tomas Alfredson’s exceptional 2008 film Let The Right One In. Based on the book and original screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the new film tells the story of two 12 year olds who live in a small town, alienated from everyone else. Owen, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) has lived there his whole life and just seems “different” -; he is quiet, rail-thin, and extremely private. Of course this makes him a perfect target for school bullies and one boy in particular is determined to make Owen’s life one of fear and dread. Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass) plays Abby, a shy twelve year old, who moves into the apartment next to Owen. They meet one night in the snowy courtyard -; her bare feet the first sign that something is seriously different about her. When Owen discovers that his new friend is a vampire who must drink human blood he’s already in too deep to drop her as a friend.

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Fair Game – Film Review


Fair Game
Directed by Doug Liman
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

I did a Q and A with Doug Liman following the National Board of Review screening of
Fair Game on October 28, 2010. Liman is sharp and was open to discussing the political real-life story that his film took on and technical/creative aspects of production – specifically the cinematography and editing.

Link to original review at NBR website

In Fair Game, director Doug Liman and his script writers (Chez and John-Henry Butterworth) take on the architects of the war with Iraq and lay bare the facts of an American betrayal in their dramatic retelling of the experiences faced by CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), the former United States ambassador to Niger. Fair Game is a classic “based on real events” story that works for all the right reasons. Hoping to find the missing ingredient to rationalize an invasion of Iraq following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush Administration turned to Ambassador Joe Wilson, who faced down Saddam Hussein in a successful effort to evacuate Americans and other foreigners during the first Gulf war. This time the mission was to find evidence of uranium sales by the Nigerian government to Iraq – to prove that Saddam Hussein was still actively building weapons of mass destruction even though his nuclear capability was dismantled after the Kuwait conflict. This would be the smoking gun to complete the swagger of those in the highest level of power in the Bush administration. Wilson’s trip to Niger, a region he had great first-hand familiarity with, was the great hope of those who were already planning the next American war. Unfortunately for the administration it was a dead end. Even more unfortunate, though, was what happened next.
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The Disappearance of Alice Creed – Film Review


The Disappearance of Alice Creed
Directed by J. Blakeson
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Link to original review at the National Board of Review

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2010) is a low budget exercise in minimalism that hangs its quirkiness on a mysterious kidnapping.  It is the first feature film written and directed by J. Blakeson, and was shot on Isle of Man in Great Britain by Philipp Blaubach (The Escapist).

The story, which opens as a mystery then settles into a creepy and suspenseful thriller, is completely restricted to the lives of three people: Vic, the head kidnapper (Eddie Marsan), Danny, the second kidnapper (Martin Compston), and Alice, the victim (Gemma Arterton). Tension builds as secrets are revealed that ramp up the danger–turning an “ordinary” abduction into a continuously evolving series of confrontations.

The roots of the film are obviously in the theater–with only three characters and at least 80 percent of the action taking place in an apartment. The simplicity of the film’s style, though, becomes its greatest strength. There are no elaborate camera movements–it is shot in a matter-of-fact way that lets the acting take precedence. The film’s stylistic control mirrors the attempts by each of the characters to stay in command of their feelings even as their careful plans fall apart. Blakeson pulls it off in a way that makes the story work on an emotional level with only a few locations and no special effects. Like the films and theater of David Mamet, Blakeson uses an almost abstract way of portraying the competitiveness and frustration of the male species through elliptical and repetitive dialogue. We are made to wonder from the beginning what exactly is going on and who are these odd men who act with such precision, calculation and undefined rage bubbling so close to the surface.
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Babies – Film Review


I met with cinematographer and director Thomas Balmés following an April 26, 2010 National Board of Review screening of his new film Babies. Traveling the world to document the lives of four babies, who are developing in front of your eyes, is a unusual job. It was a lot of hard work, as Balmés graciously explained.

Directed by Thomas Balmés
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Link to original NBR review

Babies (2010) is a delightful and unusual documentary that follows a year or so in the lives of four children -; without commentary, interviews or text (except for the names of the children, which we see only once). It’s a mesmerizing and nearly flawless film -; created in a strictly observational style using the “direct cinema/cinema verité” techniques of pioneering filmmakers Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. Wiseman became famous for making films that unsparingly chronicled the inner workings of institutions -;with intentionally generic sounding names like Hospital, Basic Training, High School, Central Par. The Maysles (cinematographer Albert and sound recordist David) made films that often focused on unusual individuals, events or artists (Salesman, Grey Gardens, Christo in Paris). Wiseman and Albert Maysles are still alive and making films and Babies is firmly in the tradition of their best work.

Babies is directed and shot by Thomas Balmés, who’s past work includes A Decent Factory (2004), in which he investigates how a Nokia Cell phone factory is run in China, and How Much is you Life Worth? (2007), which follows the internal workings of a personal injury law firm. Balmés spent a great deal of time in preproduction searching for the right families to follow and ultimately chose four stable nurturing sets of parents who would provide the supportive care he felt was central to the theme of the film. The film intercuts between four babies on four continents: Mari (Tokyo), Hattie (San Francisco), Bayar (Namibia) and Ponijao (Mongolia).
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Get Low – Film Review


Get Low
Directed by Aaron Schneider
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

I met members of the Get Low production following the NBR screening of the film on July 19, 2010. Director Aaron Schneider, Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, producer Dean Zanuck, and Sissy Spacek gathered to talk about the film. It was a fairly serious discussion with Duvall especially being in somewhat ornery demeanor, still in beard and seemingly in the character of “Bush” Breazeale. Much of our talk centered around finding the right locations, the value of the vintage wardrobe, and capturing Duvall’s big speech at the end in a long duration shot.

Link to original NBR review

Get Low, the first feature film by cinematographer/director Aaron Schneider is a self-proclaimed “true tall tale.” It’s the quirky story of Felix “Bush” Breazeale, a recluse played with sly humor and a straight face by Robert Duvall, who comes out of the hills and into a small Tennessee town with a simple request. He wants to arrange a funeral party–and invite everyone who ever heard of him (and anyone else who’s interested) to come and tell a story. The kicker is he wants to do it now–while he is alive to enjoy it. Nobody has heard of such a thing and he is turned down flat by the local minister. Bush has a bad reputation–some say he’s a killer, he chases kids off his property with a shotgun, and he’s an ornery old loner. But the conversation in the church between Bush and the minister is overheard by Buddy (Lucas Black), a young funeral assistant with a wife and new baby who could use a financial break. His boss (Bill Murray plays Quinn with the deadpan humor he’s known for) is looking for business in a town where nobody seems to die. He does everything he can to get Bush’s “Hermit Money” but nothing with the old man is as simple as it seems.
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