Director: Roger Ross Williams
Cinematographer: Tom Bergmann
Composer: Dylan Stark & T. Griffin
Owen Suskind was a happy go lucky child, a member of a lovely family with nice parents and an older brother. Everything was right in the world and then, suddenly, at the age of three something changed in Owen. A once chatty and lively kid, Owen became withdrawn, struggled to make eye contact, and ceased to communicate altogether. Owen, as his family knew him, was gone, in his place a shell of his former self. Autism had taken a hold of him and changed him completely from within.
Doctors told the Suskinds that their son didn’t seem to respond to stimuli and while it was possible that he understood what was happening around him, that it was unlikely and that they shouldn’t get their hopes up. But Owen’s parents refused to give up hope. Owen began to show some signs that he was still there especially when watching Disney animated films, and displayed a sense that he was filtering the surrounding world through the archetypal structure of animated fairy tales. One day Owen’s father picked up the child’s Iago puppet (the parrot from Disney’s Aladdin) and imitating Gilbert Gottfried’s voice (the actor who played the parrot in the film) he was able to have a conversation with his son for the first time in years. Thus began the journey the parents undertook to help Owen come out of his prison of autism and connect back to the family first and the world next: by bringing Disney’s world into our own, fusing the two, and thus providing their son with the means to understand and engage with others.
The film focuses on Owen, who is now in his early twenties, as he inches towards independence, he completes his high school studies, and works towards moving out into an assisted living facility. Owen struggles with normal issues, like dating and heartache, as well as specific issues that affect those with special needs, like remembering to look up when crossing a street, or learning how to make small talk and acknowledge what others say. His love for Disney films has never gone away, and he’s even managed to create a club for Disney lovers at his school so that he could have more friends.
It’s easy to see why this film was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature film. Subject matter aside for a moment, visually and stylistically this documentary is spectacular. Owen’s childhood and the tale he created to explain his worldview are told with animation, a brilliant stylistic choice given that animated movies are what would eventually allow Owen to engage with the world, and the art is beautiful. While at times the film could feel like a bit of a commercial for Disney, Owen’s pure joie de vivre and positive outlook prevent the viewer from ever getting annoyed with this. Owen just loves Disney movies, they are integral to the narrative, and thus fit and make perfect sense within the world of this documentary.
In the end the film is uplifting, but prepare for numerous and unexpected emotional gut punches. My boyfriend and I took turns of bursting into tears throughout the entire film. Some from joy, others from sadness, others yet from being purely overwhelmed by all that was taking place on screen. Whether it’s when Gilbert Gottfried himself shows up to Owen’s club to read lines from the movie with the group of special needs kids belonging to the club or when Owen delivers an amazing speech in France about living with autism, this film will leave you teary eyed and grateful that people like Owen exist in this world. My boyfriend is a special education teacher to children, and it affirmed his calling and evoked an even bigger drive to reach these kids and help them. These kids, like Owen, are special and many are just waiting for the tools for them to join the conversation. For Owen it was Disney films, who knows what it is for others, but hopefully there is an answer for all of them. We just have to keep on trying. We are lucky Owen is able to speak and we have a lot to learn from him. So go and see Life, Animated (which is streaming on Amazon Prime). Just remember to have some tissues handy, you will probably need them!