Friday, August 12, 2016

Autism up close in Roger Ross Williams' moving, unsettling doc -- LIFE, ANIMATED

The first thing we see in LIFE, ANIMATED are home movies of an adorable, "normal," little boy, along with his youthful-looking, though probably early middle-aged parents. Then we go forward in time to that boy as an adult autistic male, and those parents, who are now seniors. What happened in between is the meat of a new documentary currently making the theatrical rounds and opening here in South Florida today that tries to get us "inside this prison of autism." And what we're seeing here is not mere Asperger syndrome but full-out autism.

The family in focus is that of reporter/writer Ron Suskind, his wife Cornelia, and their two sons, older brother Walt and younger, autistic brother Owen. The film is based upon Mr. Suskinds best-selling book about his family's experience, and the director here is the Oscar-winning filmmaker (for the 2010 documentary short subject, Music by Prudence), Roger Ross Williams, shown at left, whose 2014 full-length documentary God Loves Uganda, was shortlisted for an Academy Award.

While every family that must deal with an autistic child has its own special experience, the thing that made the Suskinds' so unusual was the manner in which the early, classic cartoons of Walt Disney figured into the education of Owen and the ability to reach into his "prison" and at least help to somewhat bring him out of it.

I suspect that this is probably an amazing story, but the movie only partially captures it. We are told that the family was better able to communicate with Owen once they realized that he was using the Disney films (which he watched over and over) to communicate. But we get only a small sense of how and why this worked so well. What we do get, in spades, is the pain the parents go through and the incredible amount of work they must do to simply get through life, as they try to bring their son even somewhat "up to speed." For any parent, I suspect that this will be a very sad film to watch. It just hurts.

What we learn about Owen is at times somewhat inspiring (we see him, late in the film, take a trip to France to address an international conference on autism), but still, it is clear that the road ahead will be very difficult, especially considering that these parents, of course, will finally die, even as Owen's ability to sustain himself seems tentative at best. The saddest part of the film is devoted to brother Walt, who seems to take his responsibility for his brother very seriously. Watching these scenes, you want to give this guy a hug and ask, please, isn't there something we can do to help?

Style-wise, the movie is a combo of archival family film and video footage, outtakes from some of those old Disney films, talking head interviews, and some lovely, original black and-white (and finally color) animation that also tries to help us enter that prison of Owen's. We're with Walt and Owen as the question of sex education arises (we also meet his "girlfriend" for a bit). How do you teach Owen sex, Walt wonders? Via Disney porn?

We also meet celebrities such as Disney voice actors Jonathan Freeman (Jafar's voice in Aladdin) and Gilbert Gottfried (shown above, left: the voice of Jafar's parrot, Iago, in the same film). Yes, this movie is occasionally inspirational and feel-good. But it is more often -- due to the reality of the situation -- very, very sad.  After playing major cities like New York and Los Angeles, it will open down here in South Florida at the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth on Friday August 12, and then here in Boca Raton at Regal's Shadowood 16 and in Miami Beach at the Regal's South Beach 18 on Friday. September 2, and finally in Fort Lauderdale, at the classic Gateway Theater on September 9. Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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