Owen had been an ordinary kid enjoying a comfortable, loving home life. Then, abruptly, he seemed to vanish before his parents’ eyes.
When Owen Suskind was three years old, he lost the ability to communicate. The second of two boys born into an educated and prosperous household, up to that point Owen had been an ordinary kid enjoying a comfortable, loving home life. Then, abruptly, he seemed to vanish before his parents’ eyes. Owen withdrew emotionally, his speech became garbled and nonsensical, his sleeping patterns became disrupted, and even his walk became bizarre and disjointed. This is every parent’s nightmare, and it didn’t get better after a specialist diagnosed Owen’s problem as pervasive developmental disorder, suggesting that he would have difficulty learning basic things, like socialization and communication, that come naturally to most children.
A few years later, Ron and Cornelia Suskind are surprised to learn that their son, who watches Disney animated movies obsessively, has memorized huge chunks of dialogue and taught himself to read by watching the end credits. Although an expert warns the Suskinds that Owen is simply displaying echolalia, meaning he is repeating phrases without understanding, it gradually becomes clear that Owen does understand what he is saying and is able to use the characters and plots of Disney films as a way to understand people and relationships in the real world. What’s more, he has created a fictional universe population by Disney sidekicks, with whom he identifies (he relates to Iago, in other words, not Aladdin or Jafar), and has filled numerous sketchbooks with quite capable drawings of these characters.
Setting aside legitimate criticisms of the racist and sexist qualities of Disney films like Aladdin and Peter Pan (both aspects seem not to register at all with Owen), the simplified nature of the characters and their interactions in classic Disney films turns out to be the perfect tutor for Owen. Now 23, he still uses Disney films to understand situations, and watches favorite segments to prepare for important moments in his life. Of course, the real world of people is much more complex than that of Disney cartoons, and there are some things, like adult sexuality, for which his favorite films films provide no guidance (Owen’s older brother Walter suggests that the solution might be “Disney pornography,” but I doubt the House of Mouse will be getting on that any time soon).
Life, Animated is based on a memoir of the same name by Ron Suskind, and the story told in the film is upbeat and life-affirming (a fact reflected in its success on the festival circuit, where it has won several audience choice awards as well as Best Director of a U.S. Documentary at Sundance for director Roger Ross Williams). Williams enjoyed remarkable access to the Suskind household, and his incorporation of home movies from Owen’s childhood help bring the story to life, as do original animations Mac Guff.
The hook of Life, Animated is the connection with Disney films, but the film also makes it clear that the magical breakthrough was only the beginning, not the end, of Owen’s journey. It took a whole lot more, including intensive counseling and attendance at several expensive private schools, to get him where he is today, and he’ll need a lot of support in the future also. Owen has made remarkable progress for a child who once seemed unable to communicate and is quite capable in some ways (he works as a ticket taker in a movie theatre and can communicate reasonably well in controlled situation), but he still has serious deficits and will require care for the rest of his life.
All this costs money, and that’s one aspect of Owen’s life on which Life, Animated is largely reticent. Suskind has discussed financial issues more frankly in print, and it’s clear that without the resources available to an upper-middle-class household, Owen’s life might be quite different today. That’s not the story Williams chose to tell, which is certainly his prerogative, but his choices lean toward turning a complex story of real-life struggle into the kind of Disney movie Owen adores. While it’s great to enjoy the emotional uplift offered by Life, Animated, it’s also worth remembering that a lot of hard work and resources were required to produce the happy result you see on the screen. | Sarah Boslaugh