Life Animated (Documentary) ★★★½

Image caption: Owen Suskind in Life, Animated. Photo credit: The Orchard/A&E IndieFilms

An inspiring, hopeful documentary about one family’s experience with autism.

I knew what Life, Animated was about before I saw the film, and so I was not surprised to find my eyes welling up only five minutes in. This documentary is based on journalist Ron Suskind’s memoir about his autistic son Owen, and it details how Ron’s family learned to communicate with the once-silent Owen through Disney movies. Now Owen is 23 and preparing to move into an apartment of his own in an assisted-living complex. To tell the story of how Owen made it to this point, director Roger Ross Williams switches between present-day interviews and scenes of the family getting ready for their big transition, old family footage of when Owen and his brother Walt were young boys, and fantastic animated sequences (by visual effects company Mac Guff) that bring Owen’s thoughts and stories to life.

As a parent, my heart broke for Ron and Cornelia Suskind when they recounted Owen’s early years. At age three, he completely stopped talking—Ron described it as if Owen had been “kidnapped.” For a full year, he did not say anything intelligible. One day when he was four and continually wanted to replay part of The Little Mermaid, Cornelia realized that a jumbled phrase Owen always repeated was actually a line of dialogue from the film.

They rushed to Owen’s doctors with news of the breakthrough, only to have their hopes crushed again. They were told that this sort of mimicking (termed “echolalia”) was common with autistic children.

But Ron and Cornelia felt certain that their son was still “in there,” and they tried different ways of using Disney films, dialogue and characters to reach Owen. Again, as a parent, I was shattered by their relentlessness. And I have to admit that as a huge, huge Disney fan myself, I was deeply moved and flat-out amazed as I saw firsthand how characters I love and animated films I treasure made such a connection with Owen—a connection that enabled him to process feelings and make more sense of the world around him. Cynical viewers might think that Life, Animated comes off as one big Disney advertisement. But they’d be missing the point, which is that for this young autistic man, it just so happened to be these movies that helped him. For other autistic children, it might be something else. If it was anything that I felt the film glossed over, it’s the fact that the Suskind’s had the resources to crack the code for their son. They were able to go above and beyond to get him the help he needed; there are even a few Disney-related cameos, which were clearly orchestrated but still a thrill to watch. It is a shame that many families would not have or be able to afford such an array of options and opportunities for a child with special needs.

As Owen’s big day grows closer, he experiences a few setbacks, and we get to witness how each member of the Suskind family responds. Although some of this footage comes off as a little staged, it is no less powerful. We see how frustrated his older brother Walt is—both about things in the past he wishes he could’ve changed for Owen, and issues (like sex) that he struggles to help his brother with now that they’re both adults. We hear Walt, Ron and Cornelia talk frankly about their hopes and fears for Owen in the future. And through a story Owen writes (involving Disney “sidekicks,” with whom he identifies most) and a conference speech he gives, we get an illuminating and unique perspective from someone with autism.

I walked out of Life, Animated feeling lucky, blessed and humbled.

The Bottom-Line? Despite a few scenes that seem slightly contrived, Life, Animated is a documentary that you will never, ever forget. I can’t imagine someone who wouldn’t be able to take away something profound from this film. Find a way to see it!

Cast: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Walt Suskind, Cornelia Suskind

Credits: Directed by Roger Ross Williams; based on the book by Ron Suskind

Studio: A&E IndieFilms

Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

Erika Olson © July 8, 2016