“I am the protector of the sidekicks. No sidekicks get left behind.”
I love a good documentary. Whereas my brother loved to watch documentaries about animals, usually those that were narrated by David Attenborough, I’ve always favoured those about people. Those about life, but not as I know it. Perhaps it’s because as a genre the documentary allows for a convergence of two of my favourite things – film and human beings. Whether my almost excessive level of empathy comes from watching and reading about the lives of others or that I am drawn to such texts because of my empathy is of little consequence. What is of consequence is how important the genre can be in its allowing a light to be shone onto miraculous people and lives that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The extraordinary story of Owen Suskind is one of those stories that is so miraculous and moving it just couldn’t be made up.
At three years old Owen Suskind seemed like any other boy. The second son of a loving, caring and successful family he had a bright and seemingly limitless future ahead. Then things slowly started to change. Owen became more and more withdrawn; his surroundings seemed to constantly overwhelm him; his once clear speech became garbled until he stopped speaking completely. It was then that his frantic parents were given Owen’s diagnosis of autism. His parents were told that it was unlikely that he would ever speak again. They feared that they had lost him forever. Months passed during which Owen did not speak at all until, when watching ‘The Little Mermaid’ it sounded like he repeated a piece of dialogue. it was then that his parents became truly determined to use their son’s love of Disney’s animated movies to help him get back his voice.
‘Life, Animated’ is a truly wondrous story. It seems cliche to say ‘it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry” – but sometimes those cliches are true. Everything about this documentary is perfect, allowing for a true and exceptionally emotional insight into the life of the now 23-year-old Owen. The documentary very effectively uses a split narrative by interviewing the story of Owen’s present and his past. We see the incredible journey that he has made from these two perspectives without ever patronising or sentimentalizing Owen and the world he lives in.
It’s use of animation is another true success in helpingus understand Owen and, to an extent, what life is like for Owen. The animation is unflinching as illustrates the overwhelming cacophony of noise and emotions that Owen endures whilst trying to communicate with the outside world. Then there’s the more familiar snippets of Disney movies. We get to hear from Owen and his family just how important they are to him and we get to see scenes we have all probably seen countless times with a new level of poignancy. Owen uses Disney movies to understand the world and communicate with it. He uses the lessons that most of us would be aware of, if not fully appreciate, as his guide to navigating everyday situations. He speaks eloquently about how ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Peter Pan’ are both about fear of growing up, and his family reveal how he used those messages to astutely observe how his brother was feeling. His discussion of ‘The Lion King’ is particularly poignant and, in all honesty, thoroughly tear-inducing.
There’s also a lot joy along the way. As someone who had an uncle with severe special needs and another uncle who is in a wheelchair I’ve lived all my life seeing both the struggle and the hilarity that can occur during day-to-day life for those with a disability. Many family dinners have turned into how some of the resulting anecdotes could be turned into a sitcom. This may just be why I ended up crying with laughter during the sequence when Owen’s older brother Walter is trying to discuss sex and relationships with his little brother. Witnessing Walter’s question “And you can also kiss with your..?” be answered by Owen exclaiming “Feelings!” possessed the beautiful hilarity that only occurs in real life. Some of their conversations are not so funny as we watch Owen go through the same life challenges as everyone else, only with added obstacles. We also observe Walter reflecting on the role he will play in Owen’s life once their parents are gone. Such moments are shown with true honesty and without any sense of intrusion.
This is not just the story of a boy who learned how to speak thanks to Disney movies. It’s also the story of how the love of family can help overcome things that seem insurmountable. It’s feel-good, educational and utterly exceptional. A must-watch.
Dir: Roger Ross Williams
Country:USA Year: 2016 Run time: 89 minutes
Life, Animated was screened at House Of Van in London as part of the Dogwoof film series.