The Horse Boy (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

film_horse-boy_sm.gifYou have to feel happy for Rowan and his parents, even if you’re a bit skeptical that such elaborate measures were necessary.



Rowan Isaacson was a charming and active child until about age two and half, when for no apparent reason he stopped speaking and withdrew from the world, tormenting his parents with inexplicable tantrums which could last for hours. The diagnosis? Autism, a disorder which appears to be increasing dramatically among American children. Rowan’s parents, Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff, sought out the best available medical treatment for Rowan, but to no avail. They felt they were losing their son as surely as if a demon had snatched away his soul.

Then they discover that Rowan responds to horses: While riding he is calm and willing to engage with the world. So Isaacson, a former horse trainer and international aid worker, decides the family should embark on a journey to Mongolia where the horse was first domesticated and also the only country in the world in which shamanism is the state religion. Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, is skeptical—taking a child who freaks out on a trip to the supermarket halfway around the world doesn’t seem like a great idea—but ultimately she agrees.

The Horse Boy is a documentary by Michael Orion Scott about the family’s journey to Mongolia, where they travel from shaman to shaman on horseback along with an entourage including a film crew, translator, support van and even a small Mongolian boy to keep the six-year-old Rowan company. The film frames the Mongolian trip with "before" and "after" sequences in the family home, and intercuts it with various talking heads including Simon Baron-Cohen, Roy Richard Grinker and Temple Grandin who discuss autism and its treatment.

After a series of advances and regressions for most of the trip, on the very last leg Rowan experiences a breakthrough which couldn’t have been planned better by a scriptwriter. Upon return home, the changes seem lasting: Rowan has fewer tantrums, begins to interact with children his own age, and learns to use the toilet. Best of all, he’s able to stay with a babysitter so his exhausted parents can enjoy a night out.

You have to feel happy for Rowan and his parents, even if you’re a bit skeptical that such elaborate measures were necessary. Having the full attention of your parents for a month in a new environment where everyone is catering to you might have produced the same result. Or it could have been simple maturation: All children grow and change in leaps and bounds, and autistic children are no different. The worst possible outcome from The Horse Boy would be if middle-class parents across the nation decide to cart their autistic kids off to Mongolia in seek of a cure. The best would be if more people come to understand that autism, like much else about the human mind, is a mystery.

Science aside, The Horse Boy is beautifully shot by Scott and nicely edited by Rita K. Sanders. And one could hardly wish for a more cinematic landscape than that of Mongolia or more photogenic, camera-friendly subjects than Isaacson, Neff and Rowan (when the latter’s not throwing a tantrum, that is). But that’s the problem: It all seems a little too neat and packaged. There’s no cinematic distance whatsoever in this film; Isaacson is the narrator, producer and reportedly funded the film as well, so this is his version of the story we are seeing. And he’s profiting nicely from it, having received a $1 million advance for the companion book, which raises the question of whether Rowan’s story was shaped in order to provide a marketable and uplifting miracle.

True-to-life stories about the personal growth of attractive white people are all the cinematic rage these days (Julie and Julia and No Impact Man come immediately to mind), and at its worst The Horse Boy seems both an invasion of privacy (would you want your toileting difficulties presented on screen to millions of strangers?) and a cold-hearted attempt to cash in on a trendy topic. Disability activist Tom Shakespeare termed Oliver Sacks "the man who mistook his patients for a writing career," and in this film, Rupert Isaacson often feels perilously close to "the man who mistook his son for a cash machine."

But at its best, The Horse Boy provides an up-close view of just how strange a disease (or disorder or condition or syndrome) autism is and how baffling and heartbreaking it can be for parents whose child is affected. Your response will ultimately depend on how you feel about emotional manipulation. This is a button-pushing movie par excellence, so if that’s the sort of thing you enjoy then you’ll probably find it inspiring, touching, a triumph of the human spirit and so on. On the other hand, if you know a bit about autism and are of a skeptical turn of mind, then the whole premise starts to look more like a privileged family capitalizing on their child’s condition while peddling false hope to the ever-growing number of families who have a child diagnosed with autism. | Sarah Boslaugh


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