Life, Animated is a documentary portrait of one man’s life on the autistic spectrum from Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. Owen Suskind was thought to be non-verbal autistic until Disney’s catalogue of animated features presented a way for him to bond with his family and make sense of the world. Until the age of 7, Owen’s parents tell us, Owen could not speak coherently. His anxiousness would only subside when he was watching VHS tapes of Disney films. Then during his older brother Walter’s birthday, his parents are wondering why Walter seems so despondent. Out of nowhere Owen tells his parents, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”
His father, the journalist Ron Suskind, was stunned that after years of not saying anything he was not only verbalising a complicated situation succinctly, he was being more perceptive of the situation than his own parents. Ron sneaks into his son’s room, holds up an Iago puppet to him and asks in Gilbert Gottfried’s voice, “Owen! What’s it like to be you?”
Owen responds, “Not good because I don’t have any friends.”
The first conversation he has with his son is through impersonating a Disney character. They realise he can quote Disney films verbatim and relate real-life events to moments in Disney films. He is to Disney films what I am to 1990s The Simpsons. I’m not wearing a tie at all, steamed hams and so forth. I am also on the autistic spectrum although Owen is more severely autistic than I am. He was non-verbal for years, I was not. He has childlike mannerisms whereas I am often told I “pass” as someone who’s not autistic. I was doing my Masters’ degree at 23 while Owen was graduating from special needs school and moving into assisted living. I am pointing out these differences before outlining things I found close to the bone.
The interviews with family members are frank and touching, but the film really comes alive with an animated subplot that brings to life Owen’s recounting of a Disney story where he imagined himself as the Protector of Sidekicks. He was protagonist in a story where Baloo, Abu, Iago and other sidekicks live with him in a forest threatened by an evil spirit personifying depression. The vibrant oil-painting style of these scenes place recognisable Disney characters in an animation style you have not seen them in. They are also an enthralling glimpse into Owen’s mindset.
Owen explains his inspiration was his feeling that he always felt more like a sidekick than a hero because he had the goofy sense of humour sidekicks typically had. I can relate to this sense of unease, of feeling like a hero trapped in a clumsy sidekick’s body. Owen finds his way to psychologically rectify this conflict, by framing the sidekicks as important characters and heroes in their own right.
I find his epiphanies on accepting autism in his life familiar, as are his feelings towards his autistic girlfriend Emily. I cannot put into words the sense of relief and joy, the calming of the mind that occurs, when you’re an autistic man and a woman likes you enough to hold your hand and kiss your lips. The first time that happens it is like night and day. This can lead to us being clingy with our first romantic partner. Owen becomes so clingy that Emily breaks up with him. He describes the pain of that first break-up in melodramatic terms,
“Why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy? [. . .] I don’t wanna be alone and single and make my life sad forever.”
The thing is I remember feeling those things the first time I was dumped. You have probably felt something like that at some point too but only Owen is the kind of person who would verbalise it so bluntly. Owen’s processing of his break-up is not depicted mockingly but with great sensitivity to how intensely he’s feeling rejection. The point of autism is that Owen feels standard human emotions but he feels them more intensely than people with brains that are neurotypical.
I identify with that struggle and with the pressure he is under to find a job as an autistic man in his mid-20s with no employment history, the kind not stereotypically good at maths or computer science. Oh yeah. I love that this is a movie about autism while not being about maths or science skills because as I said in my review of The Accountant. I wanted to see one.
I am happier with this documentary than I was with that fiction because Life, Animated attempts an empathetic approach over a voyeuristic one. Autism is too often reduced to quirky, eccentric character traits and there are certain scenes in danger of doing this from an outsider-in perspective. For instance, scenes of Owen watching Disney films frame him in the centre of shot, zooming in slowly as he twitches and murmurs. Now as an autistic viewer, that’s not particularly strange to me but I understand why neurotypical people would consider it strange. The reason it’s not strange to me is because I get that he is having a fairly simple emotional experience of enjoying a film he likes watching. His vocal ticks or body movement is just pent-up energy being displaced, like someone’s leg shaking as they’re sitting down. These shots feel more like it’s about the spectacle of how peculiar his reaction is.
On the other hand, Owen’s perspective gets expressed through his choice of Disney film and at each point of his journey he picks out a relevant film to watch. Moving into his own apartment prompts him to watch the death of Bambi’s mom. His movie night choice with the girlfriend is Aladdin. He watches Dumbo during stressful times, Peter Pan when he’s anxious about creeping adulthood and so on. I rewatch Simpsons episodes a lot but I don’t have them catalogued for different moods to anywhere near the extent Owen perceives Disney films. By using these classic films people are familiar with, the audience understands a proxy to what Owen is feeling. This demonstrates the power of cinema for the impact it had on Owen and for the audience relating to Owen through his reference points.
Disney films taught Owen empathy as The Simpsons taught me empathy. We always felt “empathy” but the process of empathy, demonstrating social interaction in a variety of contexts, is played out in pieces of popular culture we see. In both Disney films and Simpsons episodes, clever writing, great voice acting and the exaggerated expressions of animated characters, make emotional moments ring true and clear. In its own part, our shared popular culture influences how neurologically diverse people come to understand the world. That’s why representation matters. That’s why storytelling matters. That’s why it’s good to see a heart-warming film about autism that values the perspective of people who are different. More than this, Life, Animated is a celebration of empathy as the fundamental mechanism and social necessity of cinema.