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In the autism documentary ‘Life, Animated,’ a new kind of screen hero emerges

‘Life, Animated’
Owen Suskind, center, an autistic young man who is the subject of the documentary “Life Animated” is shown with his family, including, from left, mother Cornelia, brother Walter, father Ron and director Roger Ross Williams.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The morning after his movie screened at the LA Film Festival, Owen Suskind was pondering a question that might preoccupy any young man.

“This movie will help me find a new girlfriend?” Owen, 25, asked his older brother, Walter.

“Remember when we were talking about dating profiles?” Walter said. “This is like 90 minutes of the best dating profile ever.”

The Suskind siblings and their parents, Ron and Cornelia, are the subject of “Life, Animated,” a coming-of-age documentary opening July 1 in which the protagonist -- Owen -- happens to have autism.

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Director Roger Ross Williams shot the film during a pivotal year in Owen’s life, when he moved into his own apartment for the first time and endured the turbulence of first love. Inspired by Ron Suskind’s own book of the same name, “Life, Animated” relies on home videos and imaginative hand-drawn animation to detail the Suskinds’ long journey to that point -- their devastation when Owen stopped speaking at age 3, and their shock when he started to communicate again years later, strictly in dialogue from Walt Disney animated films like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Owen is just an extreme version of what a lot of us do,” Ron said. “Everybody runs around with characters and scenes in their heads. But Owen had to take it to almost a theoretical extreme. How much can we live off of movies as our guide? How much of the meaning and essence and life can you draw from these entertainment products?”

How much can we live off of movies as our guide? How much of the meaning and essence and life can you draw from these entertainment products?
Ron Suskind

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The warmth and honesty of the Suskinds have helped “Life, Animated” earn glowing reviews from critics and standing ovations from film festival audiences. After the movie premiered at the Sundance and True/False film festivals, Owen was mobbed by admirers walking down the street, and Walter, whose sense of responsibility for his younger brother provides some of the film’s most poignant scenes, has emerged as the rare documentary heartthrob.

It took years for the family, who opened up in an interview during a recent trip to L.A., to be ready to share themselves in this way. Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, began the process with his 2014 book.

“For years people would say to Ron, ‘You’ve got to write a book about autism’ and I was like, ‘No way are you doing that,’” said Cornelia, herself a former reporter. “We’re still so much in the trenches and as a child, Owen didn’t have a say in the matter. But when Owen got to be 18 or 19 he was wrestling with that dilemma of the awareness of who he was and how people perceived him. He kept saying ‘Why don’t people see me for who I am?’ As a family we decided it was time.”

Ron’s book became a bestseller as other families found comfort in the Suskinds’ story and their approach to something they have named “affinity therapy,” in which an autistic child’s interests become a vehicle for social development.

Vibrant animation in the documentary Life, Animated helps tell the story of how Owen Suskind, diagnosed with autism as a child, learned to communicate.
Vibrant animation in the documentary Life, Animated helps tell the story of how Owen Suskind, diagnosed with autism as a child, learned to communicate.
(The Orchard )

Williams, who had established a rapport with the family after working with Ron on projects at ABC and PBS, won an Oscar for his 2010 documentary short “Music by Prudence,” about a Zimbabwean singer-songwriter with a disability. That experience drove his filmmaking approach on “Life, Animated.”

“I made a film about a person living with a disability,” Williams said of “Music by Prudence.” “Those kinds of films are often about the disability, not who a person is. You see them from the outside looking in. I wanted to tell this story from Owen’s point of view.”

Asked about his film’s director, Owen, who has a special affection for the sidekicks in animated films, paid Williams the highest compliment, likening him to Sebastian, the red crab who works beside King Triton in “The Little Mermaid,” and Mushu, the red dragon who is the titular character’s guardian and protector in “Mulan.”

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“Cause they’re funny and entertaining and guideful,” Owen explained, using a word he’s coined for someone who helps a hero to his destiny. As film stars go, Owen is a natural -- funny, unself-conscious, happy to launch into a spontaneous and spot-on impression in an interview. His recall for films is encyclopedic. In discussing an upcoming appearance on “The View,” he rattled off co-host Whoopi Goldberg’s voice acting oeuvre as if IMDB were scrolling through his brain.

The Suskinds believe it is the expressive nature of characters in animated films, especially hand-drawn ones, that helped Owen learn social cues and communication skills.

A key and fascinating piece of the film is the portrayal of Disney the company, and Ron describes the family as having been in an “arms-length dance” with the media conglomerate for years. Owen forged friendships with voice actors and animators whose work had been meaningful to him, and when Ron wrote his book, he chose to publish it through a Disney imprint because of the heavy use of Disney quotes.

The film was financed independently, however, and is being released in North America by the Orchard. Early on, Williams met with executives at Disney about licensing clips from their films, and showed footage to a group including Walt Disney Pictures President of Production Sean Bailey.

“I was really nervous,” Williams said. “He’s very powerful. I go into the office with the two assistants and the big desk and Sean came around his desk and said, ‘It’s really important that you’re an independent filmmaker. We don’t want to have any editorial say.”

Disney did not return requests for comment on the film, and declined to allow a reporter to attend a screening of “Life, Animated” for employees on the lot.

“Disney does not want to be perceived as a cure for autism,” Cornelia said.

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It’s clear, however, that many of its employees are moved by how their films have touched Owen -- Gilbert Gottfried, who voices the parrot Iago in “Aladdin,” and Jonathan Freeman, who voices Jafar, appear in the film visiting a club Owen founded for lovers of Disney films. A scene that was cut features Owen drawing beside Disney animators John Musker, Ron Clements, Eric Goldman and Mark Henn.

Once he finishes publicizing the film, Owen will return to his apartment and to his part-time jobs, which include teaching art and working in an art gallery. He hopes he’ll meet a new girlfriend, and the rest of the Suskinds hope they’ll return to a life of relative anonymity.

“Mom, is it true that I’m the only normal guy of my buddies and friends who gets to be in a movie and have fame and fortune?” Owen asked.

“You’re just a regular guy who happens to be in a documentary,” Cornelia said. “Honey, you’re not a celebrity.”

 


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