At home in happiest kingdom of them all

By Michael O'Sullivan

Charting the escape from an autistic prison through the power of myth.
Owen Suskind became autistic just before his third birthday. Picture / AP
Owen Suskind became autistic just before his third birthday. Picture / AP

When Owen Suskind shows up for an interview to talk about Life, Animated, the new documentary of which he is the subject, he's stooping under the weight of a backpack stuffed with DVDs of his favourite Disney films.

The 25-year-old, who lives on Cape Cod but grew up in Washington, never travels without an assortment of viewing options. After a lifetime of watching Disney animations, Owen has developed a savant's knowledge of their nuance and arcana.

He demonstrates that feat during a conversation that includes the rest of the Suskind family: mother Cornelia, older brother Walt and father Ron, all of whom look on less with awe than with a sense of been-there, seen-that familiarity.

Case in point: When asked whether he has seen the new Disney/Pixar film Finding Dory (Owen's capsule review: "not bad"), he launches into a ranking of Disney's best theatrical sequels, putting The Rescuers Down Under, Fievel Goes West, Toy Story 2 (but not 3) and Fantasia 2000 at the top.

"The only direct-to-video sequels I love," he says, "after happily having seen the first theatrical Land Before Time movie, released in 1988, are its 13 sequels. I would go all the way to the 10th one, from late 2003, and conclude it right there."

Later, he spontaneously quotes from one of his favourite films, The Lion King: "Oh yes, the past can hurt," he says, in the lilting cadence of the mandrill Rafiki. "But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it."

Suskind is autistic.

Life, Animated is based on Ron Suskind's best-selling 2014 memoir of his son's sudden regression, just shy of his third birthday, into a silent prison, and of his re-emergence years later, once the family discovered that the key to communicating with him was through the language of Disney cartoons. His son learned to read, Ron Suskind says, by poring over the closing credits of his favourite movies.

After winning a string of audience awards at film festivals from San Francisco to Belgium, Life, Animated has turned Owen into something of a rock star. According to Ron, his son was greeted with a standing ovation at the Full Frame festival, where the star took his place at a Q&A after running down the aisle, high-fiving the crowd.

"The film really connects with people," says the film's director, Roger Ross Williams.

Williams rejects the description of Life as a mere autism story, characterising it instead as a "coming-of-age tale" that begins in a year of transition, as Owen is preparing to graduate from a college-like school in Massachusetts for special-needs students. Unlike Ron's book, which follows what the former Wall Street Journal reporter calls the "lifeboat" of the Disney obsession, the film focuses less on the past than on the future - albeit an uncertain one, filled with such unknowns as a new apartment, a job (in a movie theatre, naturally) and a first girlfriend.

Although the ending of Life is happy - or at least happy-ish - it differs significantly from a Disney film in that it's still being written.

Much of the film features Owen speaking directly to the camera. He doesn't easily maintain eye contact, so Williams filmed his interviews using an Interrotron, a camera set-up that allows an interview subject to look into a computer screen when answering questions.

"Owen is the only one in the film who looks directly at the camera," Williams says. "Audiences are always asking me, 'Why am I connecting with Owen in such a more profound way?' I'll ask a question and then play a Disney clip, and he'll interact with that Disney clip. The audience is, in a sense, inside the clip, inside Owen's brain, in a sense. So many disability films are from the outside in."

The film also features animations of a story written and illustrated by Owen, in which he is a heroic protector of cartoon sidekicks - clearly identifiable as Disney characters - from an evil villain named Fuzzbutch, who blows fog into people's heads. Disney, which published Ron Suskind's book, has maintained what he calls an "arm's length embrace" of the film, allowing generous use of its clips without offering advice on the direction of the film.

Although Life is a celebration of the healing power of myth - specifically, Disney myth - the documentary includes a comment by Owen's brother, Walt, that underscores the limitations of a nearly all-Disney cultural diet when it comes to the subject of a young man's nascent sexuality. Maybe, Walt speculates, Owen needs to watch some "Disney porn". (And, yes, that's a thing, albeit unauthorised.) Ron alternately calls those DVDs that Owen carries around a "tool kit" and a "road map". It's one that has served Owen and his family, who, upon peering into what they thought was the prison of their son's mind, found a palace.

But there's a vast, uncharted and scary world outside that palace. Yes, Disney gave the Suskinds a road map, Williams says, but "it only goes so far."

- Washington Post

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