Life, Animated (PG)
Rating: 4 /5
‘There’s a boy, just like other boys, until one night he sees a storm on the horizon…’
This is how Owen Suskind (pictured) remembers the onset of his childhood autism in the unforgettable documentary Life, Animated. Based on the best-selling book by his father, former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, Life, Animated tells the story of how this event shaped their lives and their family.
As Ron and his wife Cordelia say in the documentary, up until the age of two, Owen, their second child, met all the developmental markers and was chatty and engaged with the world.
‘But all of a sudden,’ Ron says, ‘at three years old Owen vanishes.’
Owen’s sleep patterns become disrupted, he loses basic motor skills such as walking, but, perhaps worst of all, his vocabulary is replaced by gibberish. Specialists give the Suskinds their verdict—severe autism and to prepare themselves for an uncertain future.
This is the early 1990s and there’s much misunderstanding around autism. Both Ron and Cordelia recall the time with sadness: ‘It’s like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping,’ Ron recalls.
And then there’s a breakthrough. The one thing the family enjoy together is watching Disney movies and one day Owen turns to Ron and says he doesn’t ‘want to grow up like Mowgli or Peter Pan’.
Ron and Cordelia quickly realise that Owen is using these movies to make sense of the world and from that point they decide that the only way to reach Owen is to talk to him in Disney dialogue.
When we meet Owen, he’s a young adult on the cusp of finishing his time with a program for people with autism and preparing to live on his own independently.
Director Roger Ross Williams handles the story with great care. He not only gently coaxes information out of Owen and his parents, but also Owen’s older brother Walter, who clearly has his own story to tell about losing his little brother to autism.
Owen and Walter’s relationship is but one beautiful example of family ties. While this might be Owen’s narrative, Walt’s story is equally touching.
Taking Owen’s Disney obsession as his lead, Williams weaves animation throughout the film and this works on many levels. Not only does it illustrate how Owen felt when autism befell him (Owen creates a nefarious character who came out of the shadows and ‘blew fog’ into his brain), it also creates the right tone and mood that allows the story to be told with tenderness rather than mawkishness.
Home videos help provide a clearer snapshot of what life is like for this family and Williams doesn’t sugar-coat the ongoing hardships, disappointments and reservations.
But what underpins this documentary is hope and understanding. As Cordelia says: ‘Who decides what a meaningful life is?’
‘When I look in the mirror,’ says Owen while addressing a conference on autism in Paris, ‘I see a proud autistic man who is ready to meet a future that is bright and full of wonder.’
While Owen always saw himself as a sidekick (as a child he wrote Land of the Lost Sidekicks where he was the protector of all sidekicks), in Life, Animated, he’s definitely the hero.
Highlight: meeting the Suskinds
Red flag: none