There are very few films that I have seen that come into my life at exactly the right time. Sure, there are those which after watching I might think “what an appropriate time to see this movie”, or something along those lines. But appropriate is not necessarily the same as right time. Then there are others which have helped me fill a greater void or answer some lingering question(s). But that is not the same thing as the right time. There are a handful of movies that have perhaps made a more profound or lasting impact on me and my life, but for very different reasons than it being the right time. Also, I’m pretty sure none of them were documentaries.
This film that I am currently raving about, the one that struck me all over, is Life, Animated from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. It tells the story of the Suskind family, particularly of younger son Owen. Now, the telling of true stories is nothing new for film – particularly for documentaries – but then again there are very few families quite like the Suskinds. You see Owen has a form of autism, or as it is now referred to – Autism Spectrum Disorder. As someone who is currently helping to produce a feature film about a girl on the spectrum – written and directed by someone with ASD – there are so many reasons why this was the right time for me to see this film.
That connection notwithstanding, the film is still a remarkable cinematic achievement. While it mainly consists of interviews with Owen, his parents – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist father, Ron, and mother Cornelia – and older brother Walt, it is also interspersed with scenes of Owen attempting to live life on his own, including having his own apartment, or leading his weekly “Disney group” sessions.
The latter is another reason why I absolutely love this movie. Apart from being a Disney nerd – a large part of my childhood was The Lion King, Aladdin, Fantasia, The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, etc., – I was quite moved by how Disney animated films allowed Owen to communicate with his family.
Admittedly, this was not the first time I had heard Owen’s story and his love affair with Disney. The very first episode of RadioLab I heard was entitled JuicerVose, about Owen speaking again after a long period of being mute by blurting out a line from The Little Mermaid; juicervose being “Just her voice”. That is when I first became aware.
Then there was “Night of Too Many Stars“, the charity event started by comedy writer Robert Smigel (aka the guy who voices Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog). During the 2015 event, Owen made an appearance alongside Gilbert Gottfried – another of my favourite people – where they proceeded to do a live reenactment of Aladdin. Owen knows essentially all of the dialogue in that movie, along with countless other Disney films. Gottfried has now become one of Owen’s strongest supporters and makes an appearance in Life, Animated along with the voice of Jafar, Jonathan Freeman. So there was that as well.
Yet, in spite of those previous instances, I still knew very little about Owen. Although the film does delve into his younger years from when he was first diagnosed, it is not a life story. But it is an important story. More so than any other medical discovery, the research and awareness on and of ASD has increased radically and rapidly within the last 20+ years. But that is not what this film is really about.
The film runs the gamut of emotions. The humourous – an exchange between Walt and Owen where Walt attempts to make Owen less nervous about sex, and encourages Owen to french kiss his girlfriend Emily – to the touching moments involving Disney, as well as Owen’s interaction with Emily, there is so much packed into 90 minutes. For me, however, what Life, Animated is really about is empowerment. It shows the world that just because you have a perceived disability does not mean you aren’t capable of living a fully-functional life. Yes there is a fear of the unknown, which, in my opinion, is common for everybody not just those with ASD, and a certain social awkwardness, we need not make exceptions for people just because they may be exceptional people.
Besides the human impact aspect of the film, Life, Animated does a great job of portraying the world as Owen sees and hears it – especially in regards to hyper-focus and noise-sensitivity. Not only that, it shows how those things have become a blessing for Owen, rather than a curse. With Life, Animated Roger Ross Williams has undeniably created an amazingly sensitive yet creatively nuanced portrait of a man learning to survive.
One more thing: Autism is not a disability. Rather it is a hyper-ability. People with ASD often have extraordinary talents. Just ask Einstein, or Bill Gates, or Tim Burton. Just because you are different does not mean that you are not extraordinary