If you’re anything like me, you have ‘those’ childhood movies: movies that that you’ve watched a hundred times with your dad, movies that you would reenact countless times with fellow kid cinephiles, and movies that presented the means by which you could understand and engage the world. However, when watching Roger Ross Williams’ documentary ‘Life, Animated’, you will realize that movies will never matter to you as much as they do to Owen Suskind.
Owen has Autism Spectrum Disorder. For the first few years of Owen’s life, Ron and Cornelia had to watch as their son retreated into himself. At a loss at how to reestablish contact, Ron eventually noticed Owen’s tendency to repeat phrases and lines from Disney films. Using an Iago puppet (the parrot from ‘Aladdin’), Ron used his best Gilbert Gottfried voice to ask Owen was it was like being Owen. When Owen tells the puppet that it’s tough living without friends, Ron (still under the bed) can only bite down, swallow his instinct to reach out as a father to his son, and stay in character.
'Life, Animated' Interview - Roger Ross Williams and producer Julie Goldman
‘Life, Animated’ is, in this sense, a story of triumph: from that pivotal Iago moment, Disney movies were used to bring Owen back into the world. In the film, we see a fully developed, expressive Owen who is able to recite countless Disney scripts from memory. The documentary progresses with an admirable subtlety, using the Errol Morris ‘Interrotron’ to put us directly in front of Owen, involving us in his relationship with his beloved films. This approach lets us slowly realize that movies like ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dumbo’, ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Lion King’ give Owen the tools with which he can understand the world around him. In that way, these Disney movies are signposts that Owen can use to navigate the social complexities that used to terrify him.
The documentary also brilliantly parallels this triumph with Owen’s new struggles: on the cusp of adulthood, Owen must figure out how to navigate a relationship with his girlfriend, how to live independently, and how to maintain a steady job. These struggles show us the loving intimacy Owen shares with his family – his brother, Walter, tries to figure out how to best guide his brother through a romantic relationship, and Owen’s parents work to mitigate the thousand daily frustrations that come with navigating Owen’s ASD. It is in these small moments – moments that take place in elevators, on living room couches, in routine car rides – where the documentary flourishes: you understand not only Owen’s own perspective, but acquire a tangible empathy for the people supporting him along the way.
This delicate balancing of perspectives and struggles makes ‘Life, Animated’ one of the most engaging documentaries at Hot Docs this year. The film deftly moves between Owen’s world and the world of his mother, father, brother and partner, making you empathize with each of them. At one point, we are treated to an original, animated film that brings to life one of Owen’s own stories, where he places himself as a hero of the Disney sidekicks – the characters that are sidelined, forgotten and discarded. It is a beautiful and telling tale, as ‘Life, Animated’ brilliantly shows us just how important that supporting cast actually is – without the tireless, relentless love of his friends and family, it is likely that Owen would still be trapped within himself, alone.