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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: August 12, 2016

‘Life, Animated’ turns gripping true story into a Disney-like tale

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Father and son Ron and Owen Suskind watch a movie in "Life, Animated." Photo courtesy of The Orchard

Father and son Ron and Owen Suskind watch a movie in “Life, Animated.”
Photo courtesy of The Orchard

“Life, Animated,” the documentary playing at PMA Films this weekend, is a movie with a pretty irresistible hook.

Owen Suskind is a young man with autism who’s learned to communicate through his lifelong obsession with Disney movies.

The film, directed by Roger Ross Williams, depicts Owen’s journey from seemingly happy toddler through the onset of his condition to his rebirth, once he learns to relate to his loving family through the quotes and lessons of his beloved cartoons.

Again, that’s one head-turner of a synopsis, guaranteed to grab the attention of filmgoers looking for a heartwarming story of one man’s triumph over his disability.

And it is that. But “Life, Animated” is also so beholden to its conception of who Owen Suskind is that it rarely lets him be more.

View the trailer

Throughout the undeniably affecting film, Williams makes the choice to frame Suskind’s story like the sort of uplifting true-life tale one might expect Hollywood – perhaps Disney – to adapt. Unlike other documentaries about people with disabilities (Ira Wohl’s 1979 “Best Boy” being the gold standard), “Life, Animated” works to fit its subject into a marketable framework, instead of letting Owen Suskind reveal himself.

That said, “Life, Animated,” especially in its first half, is powerfully moving. Emotional interviews with Owen’s devoted parents, Cornelia and Ron, and older brother, Walt, show just how much love and pain there is in the Suskind family’s past and present. So little is known about the causes and nature of autism that the now-aging parents’ recollections of how Owen suddenly withdrew from them echoes with helpless horror. Ron, some 20 years later, explains, “It’s like someone kidnapped our son.”

Seeking to visualize Owen’s view of the world, Williams pulls out a lot of tricks, isolating the audio in home movies to approximate Owen’s perceptions and employing animated flashbacks of major events in his life.

The animation tracks Owen’s progress with earlier line-drawn depictions filling out dramatically once we are told how his obsession with the VHS tapes of Disney movies informed his sensibilities and, it’s asserted, helped him communicate after years of silence. It lends the film a flowing visual style that enlivens the interview structure and works thematically with the family’s memories of how their shared experience of these films finally provided the key to unlocking a shared language.

In snatches of memorized dialogue, then more complex interpretations of others’ feelings and actions, the story of how Owen came out of his isolation is easily the most thrilling part of “Life, Animated.”

Ron’s tale of getting Owen to truly speak to him for the first time, when he impersonated his son’s favorite Disney character, is worthy of a short film of its own. (And the later revelation of that character’s voice actor making a surprise appearance at Owen’s after-school “Disney club” is worth another.)

There’s a rush of joy running through this aspect of Owen’s recovery that’s irresistibly gripping. But what gets lost in much of “Life, Animated” is Owen Suskind.

First introduced staring just off camera and mumbling lines from his favorite movies in his singsong voice, the 23-year-old Owen has come a long way. But the film doesn’t delve deeply into how or why Owen’s favorite films have affected him the way they have. His therapist does theorize that the films’ exaggerated facial and verbal cues and black-and-white morality may serve as a way in. (There’s a more interesting movie hiding in the scenes where Owen discovers that real life offers more complex pleasures and disappointments than the movies.)

But Owen’s still very much dependent on others – his family, his school, his therapist – and his impending move to an assisted living facility informs Owen’s present-day story. It’s here that “Life, Animated” lets down its subject most, as the connections between Owen’s Disney obsession and his current struggles are laid on particularly thick.

When his parents leave him alone for the first time, Williams’ camera cuts to him lying in bed, sadly watching Bambi’s mother die. When Ron abruptly brings Owen to Paris to speak about his experience at an autism conference, Owen’s speech sees him compare himself to another Disney character. It’s not that these events didn’t happen; it’s that the filmmaker makes the truth of them seem contrived. In his desire to make Owen Suskind’s story resemble a Disney movie, Williams loses sight of his subject.


“Life, Animated,”

a documentary about how a man’s love of Disney movies helped with his autism
WHERE: PMA Films at Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland
WHEN: 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: $8, $6 for members and students with ID


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

Cinemagic Clark’s Pond, South Portland
Thursday: Rifftrax Live: Mothra.” Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, formerly of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” continue to ply their trade of movie mockery as Rifftrax. The guys are being simulcast live in theaters, cracking wise at this Japanese monster movie semi-classic.

Frontier, Brunswick
Starting Tuesday: “Being A.P.” Everyone loves a good sports story, so head up to Brunswick for this documentary about one A.P. McCoy, called the greatest jump jockey of all time, as he pursues his 20th straight championship at age 40. (So you don’t have to Google it, “jump jockeys” ride steeplechase.)

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