Diagnosed with autism at the age of three, Owen Suskind went from being an unremarkable toddler to the source of much scrutiny from both his parents and his specialists. As his condition worsened, he gradually lost the ability to speak and move as he had at a younger age. The difficulty in reaching Owen persisted until the ground-breaking discovery that Disney films allowed him to associate with the emotions that had previously alienated him. The documentary ‘Life Animated’ demonstrates the continued progress and possibilities that exist in the domain of research on autism. Designed as a message of inspiration, the film explores how Owen uses Disney films to manage relationships as well as daily life.
It is indisputable that the film brings hope to its viewers. The endearing relationships alone make it worth watching, particularly when it explores the warmth between Owen and his brother and girlfriend, both of whom have a palpable affection for the young man. The steps that Owen makes genuinely heart-warming, and the image of him quoting beloved Disney lines would stir a rush of nostalgia in the coldest of viewers. Lovers of the children’s classics will certainly struggle to keep a dry eye.
Nonetheless, the documentary is far from perfect, particularly with regards to its depiction of Owen’s disability. His parents openly describe his development of autism as him ‘disappearing’, claiming that the son they wound up with was not the one born to them. Repetition of words such as ‘normal’ and ‘functional’ seem to suggest that the autistic Owen is somehow a lesser being due to his disability. Although there is warmth in their view of their son, an alienation can be sensed between who Owen truly is and who they imagined he would become.
Whilst the progress in the management of autism marks an important step forward in the field of mental health, the depiction of autism is perhaps not the most helpful when it comes to reducing stigma regarding the condition. Although the film strives to portray an unbiased, honest portrayal of the family’s struggle, it occasionally falls into the trap of depicting a life with autism as somehow inferior. Perhaps this reviewer is overly sensitive, but I believe a more sensitive approach could have wielded great strength upon the general public.
That being said, the film shows the power of hope and patience at its finest. If you have ever doubted the magic of Disney, your hesitation will fade at watching how Owen is transported by the animated characters. It also succeeds at being completely stripped of artifice- the poignancy of the documentary rests in how raw the characters allow themselves to be.
Love it or hate it, ‘Life Animated’ tells a story that needs to be brought out into the light. Our understanding of mental illness is changing, and although portrayals of it may not always be faultless, we are certainly miles more advanced than we were in previous years. So, if you get a chance, head over and watch the film at the ‘Stronger Than Fiction’ documentary screening at the Palace Electric. If nothing else, it’ll remind you of the magic of Disney, which transcends across all ages.
Life, Animated is showing at the Stronger than Fiction Festival, this Friday, July 29th 2016 at 6.30pm – Palace Electric Cinema