20 January 2017

LIFE, ANIMATED. (2016) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.




LIFE, ANIMATED. (2016) BASED ON THE BOOK BY RON SUSKIND: LIFE, ANIMATED: A STORY OF SIDEKICKS, HEROES AND AUTISM. DIRECTED BY ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS. 
STARRING OWEN SUSKIND, WALT SUSKIND, CORNELIA SUSKIND AND RON SUSKIND.
RELEASED BY DOGWOOF: THE UK'S LEADING DISTRIBUTOR AND SALES AGENT OF QUALITY DOCUMENTARIES.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

Having only discovered less than a year ago that a special little family member was, as they call it, 'on the autistic spectrum,' this documentary was something I was really anxious to get a look at.

It's the story of a young American man called Owen Suskind, who, when he was a normal, healthy and happy little boy of three, suddenly developed the symptoms of the 'pervasive developmental disorder' known as autism. He went from communicating normally to only speaking in a sort of gibberish. That in itself was interesting to me, as I hadn't known that that could happen.

Owen's Dad Ron, on whose book this film is based, describes what happened as akin to someone 'kidnapping' their boy, as the Owen they knew and loved was disappearing before their very eyes. He also astutely refers to the 'prison of autism.' I can understand what they mean.

Their son still looked the same outwardly, but his mind was now closed off to them. He couldn't communicate to them what, if anything, he was thinking. His devoted parents felt like their son was slipping further and further away from them.

Autism is a way of seeing the world differently. I've had that explained to me a million times over the course of the last year. It can affect the way a person relates to other people and can cause social, intellectual or emotional difficulties, in varying degrees depending on the person.

Owen's older brother Walt (a great name for Owen's brother, as you'll find out!) describes it as being 'different; drastically different.' Walt, incidentally, talks very movingly in the film about having to be ready to step up to the plate and take care of Owen if and when his parents become too old or sick to do so. He sounds like the best brother a guy could have. He's cute, too!

If it doesn't sound too patronising, the thought that one day any of us might find ourselves going it alone is why it's so important to encourage autistic people to be as independent as possible. The whole film revolves around that exact concept as a grown-up Owen, curly-haired and handsome, prepares to move out of the safe, comfortable family home and into an assisted-living community seventy-five miles away.

The reason for the film's title, LIFE, ANIMATED, is that the DISNEY films that Owen was obsessed with as a child were the catalyst that led to a tremendous breakthrough in his ability to communicate verbally. A previously non-talking Owen, observing his brother Walt's seeming unhappiness on his ninth birthday, suddenly and out of the blue remarked to his father:

'Walter doesn't wanna grow up, like Peter Pan or Mowgli...!'

Owen's parents were gobsmacked, to say the least. It seemed that the beautifully-coloured films we all watched as kids, like BAMBI, DUMBO, THE LION KING, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, HERCULES, THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, helped him to express himself and his feelings in words. It didn't hurt that his Dad Ron was prepared to talk to him in the form of a puppet, namely Iago, the wisecracking parrot from ALADDIN...!

DISNEY films were always a constant feature in Owen's life. Even as everything else changed and he and everyone else around him grew older, DISNEY remained unchanging, a permanent fixture. Owen established a 'DISNEY Club' amongst his peers in his special school (Why? To be more popular, he honestly says!) and established DISNEY voice actors like Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried even came to the club as special guests, much to the delight of the participants.

We see Owen, a good-humoured and sporty-looking young fella, moving into his new home and baking cookies and watching BAMBI with his girlfriend Emily on his first night away from home. I personally wouldn't have chosen BAMBI, not given what happens to Bambi's mother in it...! Way,
way too perilous, haha.

Owen and Emily, who in the film is due to move into the apartment above Owen's in the assisted-living community, seem like a lovely couple. But being autistic is no guarantee that the path of true love will run any smoother than it does for the rest of us.

Owen has some tough times coming ('Why did this have to happen and make my life sad forever?') and he'll have to face up to an unpalatable truth that comes to us all sooner or later in life: few things, if anything, last forever...

There's a very funny scene in which Owen's older brother Walt tries to talk to him about sex and normal male-female relationships in the context of Owen's relationship with Emily. Owen normally likes to equate his beloved DISNEY scenes with situations in his own life.

Will a mortified Walt be able to find a relevant scene amongst the DISNEY back catalogue to explain the mechanics of sex or will he indeed have to resort to searching for- wait for it- DISNEY porn...? I laughed out loud at that bit.

The film is scattered throughout with the most exquisite animation based on Owen's own beautiful drawings and stories, in which he sees himself very much as one of life's 'sidekicks' (like the wisecracking Iago) rather than one of its 'heroes.' 

The film is out on DVD on January 30th, 2017, courtesy of DOGWOOF, the UK's leading documentary film distributor and sales agent.

The only beef I have with the film is that the Suskinds are very obviously a wealthy family, with their lake house and boat and the best of professional healthcare for Owen and everything. While that's great for them, most families of autistic people, myself included, aren't so lucky and will probably have to struggle for every little victory they achieve. Does that sound like sour grapes? Maybe it is, but maybe also certain things do come more easily for rich people.

I wouldn't want to end on a bitter note. Owen is a lovely young man who deserves all the luck and happiness that life has to offer. His speech on autism in Paris, France is a credit to him. After all, 'autistic people only want what everyone else wants.' They just find it a bit trickier to obtain. As 'a strong autistic man,' Owen is looking forward to 'a future that is bright and full of wonder.' Let's hope he gets it.


AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

 You can contact Sandra at:


http://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com






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