As a guy diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, I am not very good at communicating with others including my family members, but I found a way to reach to others through writing and talking about movies. Although I must admit that my intense interest in movies almost ruined my education course and academic career at several points of my messy, inconsequential life, I do not regret at all because I always felt happy and excited while sharing my feelings and thoughts on movies with others, and, as you see at this moment, I still do.
That was why I was quite touched by the autistic hero of documentary film “Life, Animated”, who found his own way of reaching to others via Disney animation films he has watched since his childhood. I could not help but notice how much he looks happy whenever he shares his enthusiasm with others, and it was a really moving experience for me to observe him taking his first steps into the world outside.
Before he suddenly showed the signs of autism, Owen Suskind was just like any other kids around his age. As shown from his family’s home movie clips shot during his pre-autism period, he was an active and chirpy kid at the beginning, but then he became increasingly gibberish and clumsy at some point when he was 3, and his parents Ron and Cornelia were devastated to hear from specialists that their son’s mind might be irreversibly stuck in incommunicado state for the rest of his life.
While his family was at a loss with Owen’s autism, one year passed along with the uncomfortable silence in their household, and then there came a small but significant breakthrough. When Owen uttered a strange, seemingly incomprehensible word, his parents did not understand it at first, but then they came to realize that it was actually a phrase from “The Little Mermaid” (1989), one of Disney animation films Owen had compulsively watched.
Although specialists cautioned to Owen’s parents that it could be mere echolalia, they began to see a small sign of hope from it, and then they experienced another remarkable moment a few years later. During the birthday party of his older brother Walter, Owen made a clear, complete comment on Walter’s unhappy attitude, and his parents could not be more amazed by what they had just witnessed from Owen.
It turned out that Owen had learned how to speak and read through Disney animation films as trying to grasp their plot and dialogues, and those animation films were certainly good guides for him. The bold, simple emotional expressions of animation characters functioned as easy cues to be processed by his autistic mind, and every line absorbed and then memorized by him became the means of communication for him. When Ron approached to his son via one of supporting characters in “Aladdin” (1992), he soon came to find an opening to his son’s mind, and that amazing moment is still vividly remembered by him.
While he came to be more supported by his family than before, Owen had problems with following the education courses at his school, and he became more withdrawn to himself as frequently bullied by other students. Again, he was helped a lot by Disney Animations films; he came to focus on drawing animation characters, and he created his own fantasy world where he is the protector of his favorite animation characters.
For presenting the state of Owen’s autistic mind for our more understanding, the director Roger Ross Williams incorporates a number of animation sequences into his documentary, and the most colorful ones give us the glimpses into Owen’s fantasy world. Interestingly, most of his favorite characters are sidekick characters, and I must say I totally understand his preference. After all, sidekick characters are much more fun to imitate than straightforward heroes/heroines, aren’t they?
As Owen’s high school graduation is approaching, his parents and his brother see that there will be far more struggles for him as he is coming out to the world outside. Although he is constantly helped by counselors and he also has a girlfriend he really likes, he still needs to learn more about complex human matters which Disney animation films cannot teach, and there is an small amusing scene where Walter muses on how he can teach his brother how to move onto the next steps after kissing his girlfriend.
As expected, it turns out to be quite difficult for Owen to start to live independently at an assisted living community far from his family home. He is clumsy and awkward as usual, and then there comes a painful moment when he struggles to process a sudden change coming upon him. Although my case is milder compared to his, I had similar experiences which threw my mind off balance like that, and I really felt sorry for him as watching that scene.
Nevertheless, “Life, Animated” mostly feels optimistic with its warm, heartfelt moments observed from Owen and his family. While he may look and sound odd at first, Owen is a likable lad we cannot help but root for, and I would love to hear his opinion on “Inside Out” (2015). It is fortunate that he has a good family who has always encouraged him to take more forward steps into life, and you can clearly see how much his family are proud and supportive of him when they attend his high school graduation ceremony.
Although I am still frequently baffled about the complexities of life and people out there (my latest challenge is driving a car, by the way), good movies helped me have more empathy and understanding on various people different from me, and “Life, Animated” is another good example besides being a very moving documentary film. Life will certainly continue to be a challenge for Owen, but he will go on – with his family and animation friends at his side as always.