It's a commonplace to hear people say movies changed their life, but with Owen Suskind that statement is meaningful in an unexpectedly profound way. His remarkable story is so unusual you would dismiss it out of hand if it were fiction, but the documentary "Life, Animated" demonstrates that it's completely true.
Not just any films changed Suskind's life, but rather the classic animated features from the Walt Disney Company. Films like "Dumbo," "Bambi," "Peter Pan," "The Lion King" and "Aladdin." You've probably watched them yourself. But Owen Suskind has not just watched them, he's absorbed them so completely he's practically lived them.
As directed by Roger Ross Williams (who won Sundance's documentary director prize) and based on the bestselling book by Owen's father, Ron Suskind, "Life, Animated" joins Owen's life at a pivotal moment and shows us where he's been and what his future looks like.
At 23, Owen Suskind is a cheerful and energetic young man who wears his autism lightly. He has a girlfriend, is just finishing school and is nervous and excited about living by himself for the first time in an assisted living facility on Massachusetts' Cape Cod.
Owen talks to himself when he's anxious, but almost exclusively in the dialogue of Disney films. He has seen them so many times he's memorized every word, and no wonder. They have proved to be a lifeline that has brought him back to the world and helped him make sense of it.
When we first meet Owen, it's in a family home movie, an antic 2-year-old being read to by his father. Then, without warning, at age 3, this lively boy stopped talking entirely.
"His language processes broke down," says his mother, Cornelia, who still tears up at the memory, while father Ron says it was as if his son "vanished," adding "it was like looking for clues to a kidnapping."
Doctors were initially baffled as well, eventually diagnosing "pervasive developmental disorder," where the world and its noise become too intense.
One of the only things the Suskinds, including older brother Walt, could still do as a family was watch the Disney family movies Owen had always loved, and they did.
The specific circumstances and episodes of how Owen returned to speech are so remarkable they're best left to be discovered in the film, but though he did return, it did not mean that things would always go smoothly for him, either as the child he was or the young adult he now is.
No matter what Owen is dealing with, starting with childhood bullying when he "walked the halls of fear" or more adult problems that make him wonder "why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy," he uses his Disney animation fascination to work through it.
As a child, for instance, he created an entire cartoon universe he called "The Land of the Lost Sidekicks" and cast himself as the protector of sidekicks against the evil Fuzzbutch. One of "Life, Animated's" loveliest touches is a beautiful animated sequence, created by France's Mac Guff Animation, that brings that world completely to life.
Better even than the animation, however, is the sense of the people involved that the film provides, especially of Owen, a remarkable young man who, as director Williams says, "has raw emotions - he doesn't have filters."
Williams, whose last feature-length documentary was the very different "God Loves Uganda," an exposé of how evangelical fundamentalists demonized homosexuality, spent two years on this project, and the trust everyone involved placed in him allowed for an emotional honesty that is "Life, Animated's" greatest strength.
By the time Owen says, "the future? I'm still searching for it," we feel his life is in very good hands. His own.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes