Sundance doc "Life, Animated" highlights family’s efforts to reach their autistic son
Avid New York Times readers may remember the captivating story about Owen Suskind, an autistic man whose love of Disney characters helped him reestablish a connection with his family and the world.
Owen’s story was lovingly and exquisitely told by his father, the Pulitzer-prize winning Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind.
The 2014 article, later expanded and published as the best-selling book "Life, Animated," recounts in detail how, at the age of three, Owen suddenly stopped responding to the outside world, how his desperate parents spent years consulting with doctors and enrolling him in special programs. And how one day, after a five-year silence, Owen responds, in full sentences, to a Disney puppet from the film Aladdin.
But Owen is far from cured. Over the next decade Owen’s devoted parents and brother continue to draw Owen out by nurturing his love for Disney characters, especially the beloved sidekicks like Iafo, Rafiki, Sebastian and Lumiere. In doing so they invent their own type of therapy for Owen’s autism – one that is now gaining support from medical professionals.
But as powerful as Suskind’s book is, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams believed he could add a dimension that would paint an even more vivid portrait of what goes on in Owen’s head.
"I have worked with Ron professionally for 15 years. We worked together at ABC News and at PBS. He told me about his book when he was still writing it. I immediately knew it would make an amazing documentary," he said.
It was also obvious to Williams that animation would be an essential tool.
"It was very important for this film to be Owen’s story from Owen’s point of view," said Williams in an interview prior to the opening for the festival.
Williams sought out the Paris-based animation group, Mac Guff Design Studios.
"I wanted French animators because I feel French animators are doing amazing work in 2D animation."
The artists at Mac Guff turn Owen’s tale about a group of lost sidekicks into a visually mesmerizing movie-within-a-movie.
"It was a dream to turn what was in Owen’s head into beautiful living color," he said.
Williams uses another creative technique as well, turning Owen’s affinity for TV screens into an advantage. He placed a camera inside a TV screen to record Owen’s facial expressions as he dives deep into each Disney fantasy.
According to Williams, the Suskind family, allowed him to get to know Owen in his own way.
"My vision was to capture what was a very transformative year in his life along with all of the struggles and all of the glory."
Williams who directed the acclaimed 2013 Sundance film "God Loves Uganda" and won a an Oscar for the documentary short "Music by Prudence," about as girl from Zimbabwe, said, "I have always been drawn to this struggle of people outside the mainstream, people perceived as different."
But, Williams said, he often learns, that his subjects are facing universal human challenges.
"I realized this wasn’t a film about someone living with autism. This is a classic coming-of-age story. Something we all go through – we all move away onto a place of our own, we all fall in love and have our first heartbreak. It is something we all go through, it is just that the stakes are so much higher for Owen."
"Life, Animated" is in Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition program and will screen at the following times:
- Saturday, Jan. 23, 2:30 p.m., The MARC, Park City
- Sunday, Jan. 24, 3 p.m. Redstone Cinema 7, Park City
- Tuesday, Jan. 26, 6:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Centre, Salt Lake City
- Wednesday, Jan. 28, 5:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
- Thursday, Jan. 29, 6:30 p.m., Peery’s Egyptian Theater, Ogden
- Saturday, Jan. 30, 11:30 a.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City
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