Wednesday 18 January 2017

Life, Animated (USA 2016: Dir Roger Ross Williams)

The viewing remit of DEoL continues to expand in the new year with this stunning documentary by Roger Ross Williams, who previously made the Oscar winning Music by Prudence (2010).

Life, Animated is the extraordinary story of Owen Suskind. Until three years of age Owen was a healthy baby (if a little overdistracted by his surroundings) but in his third year he withdrew from life and gave up talking - he was subsequently diagnosed with autism. Owen's despairing parents Ron and Cornelia (whose presence in the film shows just how much they have lived and breathed the ups and downs of their son's development) feared the worst for their son, but a seemingly gibberish utterance by him turned out to be a line from one of the many Disney films which he watched obsessively. Quoting whole blocks of dialogue from these movies became his communication lifeline and way back from silence to language. By using characters and situations from Disney films to help illustrate his feelings, he was able to navigate through a sea of confusion in a world where he was previously unable to relate to those around him. It must have been an extraordinary revelation for his family, all desperate for Owen to regain his essential humanity.

The Owen Suskind we see for much of the film is a confident, articulate young man who runs a class at his school for other kids whose disabilities limit communication. At one point in the film he's even invited to guest speak at at Autism convention in France (one can only guess at the challenge involved in learning enough French to deliver his halting introduction, in that the task of putting his own thoughts together for the address seem insurmountable in their own right). Disney hasn't 'cured' him but it has helped, along with armies of largely unseen support teams, to give him a chance of an independent life and eventually even a job - in a cinema, natch.

As always with documentaries like this there's a thin line between exploiting Owen and simply setting up the camera to observe him (Williams seems to favour a non interventionist approach - for example when Owen, newly moved into his independent living space towards the end of the film, pleads with the film makers to help him access his mail box, they fail to act).

Aside from the Owen's parents, whose fear for their son's continued independence after their death is understandable, perhaps the most interesting relationship is with his older brother Walt. They have a solid bond but the spectre of what will happen to Owen in the long run, and how that will impact on Walt's life choices, is well defined and very poignant. Walt clearly wants a brother he can relate to as an equal - at one point he has a 'birds and bees' conversation with Owen which possibly fires up the younger sibling and results in him coming on too strongly to his girlfriend (who is very sweet but seemingly quite immature) and who subsequently finishes with him; the break up is carefully managed by care workers looking after either side like solicitors in a divorce settlement.

Telling a story of a quarter century of living in just an hour and a half inevitably leaves more questions than answers. We see how Owen uses Disney characters to voice his concerns, hopes and fears (and the extent of how much these characters mean to him is clearly shown when two of the Disney voice artists turn up at his school), but that angle is only surely part of his development - other assistance is skirted around because it doesn't serve the central conceit of the film. But this is a minor quibble in an outstanding documentary which resists over Disneyfying the idea of Owen as a Peter Pan figure but does go some way to suggesting a greater value to the Disney stories than the schmaltz they are often seen to be.

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