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.