I had the good fortune of seeing the new documentary, Life, Animated, last week in Brooklyn with Rooftop Films. And then… I saw it again at a special screening at the United Nations. I was very excited to see it; I’ve been following the film’s producers ever since it was announced! I am sharing my review here before the movie is released nationwide in July.
Life, Animated is based on the memoir with the same title by Ron Suskind (reviewed here). In this documentary version, the filmmakers follow Owen Suskind, an autistic young man who has learned about life through Disney movies. This is a coming-of-age story portrays Owen as he graduates from a transitional residential school program to independent living. The film combines old family footage, Disney animations, Owen’s current life situation, and new animations depicting Owen’s imagination to tell this tale.
To get a better sense of this, check out the trailer:
If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you can no doubt expect that I would love this film. You are not wrong; I loved it. However, this film goes in a completely different direction than the book. This is a good thing – there was no point in creating a movie out of Suskind’s original memoir. He told his story from his point of view, as a father. Instead, the film stays closer to Owen, depicting his thoughts as he scripts (technically, uses “echolalia”) throughout to connect his emotions to the animated Disney films that are constantly running through his brain. Stories from Ron Suskind’s original book are embedded into the beginning of the film, but that really is just the set-up. Slowly, the film emerges as Owen’s story to tell.
Emotions are at the forefront. Owen is nervous and excited – these words seem to be spoken a lot throughout the film. We see him encounter both love and heartache. We feel his frustrations and his joys. Really, this is not a movie about the power of Disney films; this is a movie about the powerful emotions involved when you are growing up autistic, and Disney happens to be Owen’s guiding force. Disney movies act as a kind of translation service for his brain.
When Owen’s nervous about growing up, he watches Peter Pan. When he’s thinking about his parents leaving, he watches Bambi or Dumbo. The Disney Club, a club that Owen created to become “popular” at his school (“And it worked!” he smirks…) watches the Lion King together; they interpret Rafiki’s teachings about being independent in the real world – a step that they are all about to take.
I could not help but feel so connected to Ron and Cornelia, Owen’s parents, throughout this film. It was so great to see and hear Cornelia, especially, since she is the one I felt connected to most in Ron’s memoir. Fellow mothers of special-needs children will no doubt feel that tug, too. But one other person in this film pulled at my heartstrings, and that was Walt, Owen’s older brother.
As a parents of twins – one of whom has autism and one of whom does not – I am always tuned in to stories about siblings. Walt’s connection to Owen, and his worries about taking care of his younger brother once his parents pass away, are very heart-wrenching to watch. The two brothers share a deep connection and Walt’s concerns about being Owen’s caretaker through the future is a real one. (And the fact that Walt shares the same first name as Disney, the man? That’s pure coincidence here – but it’s amazing that it does!)
Mostly, I love this film because it shares the same underlying message as this blog – namely, that autistic individuals have a special connection to visual media, and we need to embrace that in order to understand them, and to help them communicate and be understood by others. For Owen, that connection is Disney animated movies, which he enjoys repeatedly on VHS tapes, just the way he did as a child. For my son, Quentin, that same joy is seen in the way he reacts to corporate logos, or books. As I interact with more parents of children with autism, I am sensing that their children, too, have “affinities” that drive their behavior and social cues. We should never attempt to stamp these things out, they are very essence of their personalities!
There is something else in this film that has really stuck with me. Beyond the amazing connection between autism and Disney movies, this film is really about the autistic individual’s transition to adulthood, once the Department of Education no longer pays for things and it’s all on the parents to find a placement and pay for it. As an autism parent, I have seen a lot of documentaries about autism. Most of them are about young children; few cover this time in life, involving steps toward independence. At a Q & A session with the family, director, and U.N. representatives following the United Nations screening, Ron made it clear that he knows that his family is privileged. Not all parents of autistic young adults will have the knowledge and resources to find an appropriate setting for their child. None of the blood, sweat, tears and reams of paperwork that go into finding the right group home was depicted in this movie. Of course, that was not the point of this film, but for me, that concept stuck. So if anyone out there is listening – I have a great idea for a new documentary about autism…
Life, Animated is opening in movie theaters nationwide in July. Check here to see a more detailed schedule.