With continuing advances in understanding of mental health and brain conditions, there is a widening territory for filmmakers to consider and represent the experiences of non-neurotypical people. Roger Ross Williams documentary Life, Animated is at the forefront of this new scope, with the story of Owen Suskind’s life managing autism covering just about all the emotions under the sun.
Owen showed signs of autism as a young toddler, and what began as quietness and slow development became a silence lasting many years, and a near-total lack of social skills and comprehension. For his parents Ron and Cornelia and his older brother Walt, they were faced with losing a loved one they had barely met, and being left with a person with whom communication was all but impossible. His only joy came from the animated films he played on a loop. But a chance discovery via a line from The Little Mermaid opens a window into Owen’s mind, and what follows is a passionate, intensely human quest to let him live his happiest life.
A number of techniques are used to convey Owen’s condition to the audience. At moments the chatter of voices reaches an unintelligible crescendo, giving a bewildering feeling of isolation in a crowd. Most memorable are the cartoon versions of his own Disney-style story; an adventure involving secondary characters from various Disney classics called The Protector of Sidekicks. It is these characters who have provided comfort and self-recognition for Owen, and he has turned them into art of his own; it is entirely right that Disney are in talks about moving forwards with his idea. The film never relies on these techniques to carry the day, though, instead dipping in and out. This allows the audience to both feel and then consider Owen’s life. It also shows that autistic people are not defined by their difficulties, and that their perceived restrictions can be made into positive things. Their condition will be better and it will be worse, but it is not all of them all of the time.
Avoidance of authorial voice, whether through voiceover or onscreen text, is wise. It puts the Suskind family front and centre, allowing them to present their story on their terms. This should be a key element of representing different mind types; this is not the space for an auteur, but rather for the filmmaker to act as assistant, helping differently-minded people bring their lives to screen. Williams clearly has this down to a T; he overcame the issue of the camera getting too close to Owen by mounting a special screen attachment, making it seem that Owen was not being filmed but held in conversation.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of patronising a 23 year old man who is obsessed with Disney. But Life, Animated is never anything but respectful of Owen, while being deeply interested in the hows and whys of his life. He finds communication tough, but he is at times happy, sad, hopeful, confused – like anyone else. His most notable quality is a sharp sense of humour, and excellent comic timing; he passes the ‘would you go for a pint with him’ test with flying colours. What begins as a story of how different this child was becomes a portrait of a young man who is rather like us. He is not someone to be protected or restrained from the world; he is at his best when expressing himself, especially when in conjunction with others (his Disney fanclub looks like a joyous place to be).
It is never just one person affected by a mental health condition; it is their parents, friends, loved ones. Williams skilfully brings out their hopes and fears, for Owen’s life and their own. The most touching scene is when Walt considers his future once his parents are gone, and how much of it will be devoted to caring for Owen. The lump in my throat rose when he said these thoughts are toughest on his own birthday.
It is remarkable that the notoriously cautious, controlling Disney allowed such wide use of their films and trademarked characters, not only in their original form but in the places to which Owen takes them. Huge credit must go to Williams and his producers, who had to convince each Disney department (sales, marketing, merchandise etc) of the validity of the project. When you see the film, though, it is easy to see why they gave the go-ahead; this wonderful creation shows the positive impact that art and stories can have on the darkest of situations.