By: Oberst von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
Owen Suskind is a 20-something Autistic man who is on the cusp of being able to transition into an apartment of his own. Years of therapy and specialized education have made it possible for him to function. But the future wasn’t always this optimistic, as when he was a young child his doctors were in doubt as to how far he could progress. In a true “Eureka!” moment, his father discovered that Owen’s obsession with Disney films could be used as a path to communication and understanding. This documentary by filmmaker Roger Ross Williams follows Owen as he transitions into living on his own, and looks back at the tough and touching road that Owen and his family have followed towards this time.
Director Roger Ross Williams carefully stays out of the way of his subjects as they go about their day, but brings them in for interviews and comments which tell the story of their lives. The Suskind family has clearly learned how to handle Owen’s routines and rituals, while encouraging him sensitively to accept change and become more open. It is a highly supportive environment that sadly so many with Autism do not see due to lack of understanding of the disorder. Autism is a condition which creates major challenges for parents and family, as the key to learning and development is communication, and this is very often hampered severely. This film serves as a good introduction, and could even be used as a learning tool to dispel misconceptions of Autism.
Besides the educational importance of this film, it is technically gorgeous. Roger Ross Williams employs the use of animated segments to illustrate Owen’s mind and the way he perceives the world, and the pictures it paints are nothing short of stunning. The wispy watercolor-imagery of the animated segments are not overused so as to make it feel like a gimmick, instead they are used to drive a greater narrative around Owen in a way that is truly fascinating. Owen’s basic understanding of the world began with animation and so it must be surreal seeing his thoughts interpreted this way quite literally.
The main hook to Life, Animated is the way Disney films were able to help Owen understand life. The film sometimes feels like it doesn’t address enough other breakthroughs and challenges outside of this scope. Perhaps it was because getting the rights to so much Disney footage required some creative legal wrangling, but the only scene in which the limitations to Disney’s ability to help interpret the world is explored is in dealing with Owen’s love life. It would have also been interesting to see more of how his parents balanced this Disney thing in their own lives, as surely there is a limit to how many viewings of The Little Mermaid one can take.
One family’s supportiveness and patience with their Autistic son, and their triumph over the disorder’s greatest challenges, is an inspiration to families in similar situations all over the world.
Life, Animated (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every shot of Disney movie footage
Take a Drink: for Animation created for the documentary
Do a Shot: for Gilbert Gottfried impressions Double It: for actual Gilbert Gottfried
Do a Shot: during the awkward conversation Owen and his brother have about Owen’s sex life