Review: Life, Animated (2016)

Life, Animated

© The Orchard

© The Orchard

I have loved movies for as long as I can remember, but I didn't actually start investing a legitimate amount of time into them until I hit my college years. By that point, I was so far behind on the classics of cinema that I felt the need to introduce myself to the staples of the medium. I would generate massive lists of movies I wanted to watch, and these queues would become so extensive that I would simply have to draw the line. More often than not, documentaries would hit the cutting room floor. At the time, my idea of a documentary simply revolved around something based in the political spectrum or the cultural landscape of the era, so it seemed as though those older docs might not necessarily cater to my twenty-first century sensibilities. As a result, I expanded my pseudo-ban on the genre to all documentaries, solely for the purpose of having the time to catch on on what I had deemed worthy and required.

Life, Animated follows Owen Suskind, a twenty-three-year-old man living with autism. He had been an outgoing child in the early stages of his life, but around his third birthday, he started to recede within himself and quickly lost his penchant for articulate and understandable speech, causing his parents - Ron and Cornelia - an incredible amount of shock and concern. Desperate to find a way to bring their little boy back, they soon start to notice that Owen has gravitated towards classic Disney animated films, using them to craft and shape his understanding of the world around him. The parents pick up on the idea and begin to cater to Owen's affinity in the hopes of bringing him to a place where he could be an independent and productive member of society. 

The last ten years have started to see documentaries becomes vastly more accessible than they were in the past, and I don't just mean that they're easier to find. Whether my initial idea that they were left for the cultural zeitgeist or for political ramblings of the past was actually correct, I simply cannot be sure. With the meteoric growth of accessible media, however, more and more real-life stories have started to be seen by the masses. Rather than only noticing documentaries focused on a spin or an agenda, we have started to see a slew of relatable tales focusing on the incredible moments of everyday individuals' lives. I have definitely boarded the documentary train since my time in college, and it has gotten to the point where I am oftentimes more excited to see a new documentary than I might be for its narrative counterpart. Life, Animated falls into this category, having hit me over the head with a trailer so heartwarming that I simply could not miss the opportunity to check out this flick. 

Director Roger Ross Williams, who follows a story illustrated in a book by Owen's father Ron, crafts an engaging story about a young man handling a mental and emotional setback while still trying to strive for success and independence. The film's story follows Owen's final days in school as he prepares to enter the real, adult world by finding a job and moving into his own apartment. In the midst of his present-day tale, we see flashbacks and old home videos chronicling the life that Owen has lived to date. His life story offers a number of twists and turns, some of which are expected and others that seem to come out of left field just to knock you to the floor. Owen has lived a captivating life in and of itself, but it is in the characterizations of himself and his loved ones that the true weight of the film manages to break through. 

From the very first moments of the story, we start to learn about Owen and quickly fall for this little boy who seems to be so happy with his life. Although the film quickly shows us an adult Owen functioning in his adult world, we still cling to the edge of our seats during the moments taking us back to his initial diagnosis, his childhood and adolescence, his struggles and successes. Owen has an electric and welcoming personality, and it's incredibly easy to love this wonderful young man. We see the love and support that his family and friends bestow upon him, and we echo their worries and concerns as Owen continues to take step after step towards his life as an independent man. The film crafts Suskind family so beautifully that you truly feel like you know them and have been welcomed into their family. We sit with Owen and see his highs and lows: we cry with him in his moments of pain, and we cheer for him in his moments of triumph. A documentary can only be as good as its subject, and thankfully for Life, Animated, Owen makes a great one. 

One of the key draws for this film that will surely hook viewers has to be Owen's connection to the classic Disney films. The question of whether someone grew up watching their animated classics isn't necessarily the right one; rather, the question lies in which of the classics they happened to enjoy. Owen has learned to live his life through the constructs set forth in films like Dumbo and The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. He used these movies to experience the real world and learn to understand the complex emotions that those with autism can't always register in their day-to-day interactions with other people. Admittedly, it has crossed my mind that this film's emotional weight may rest on our collective connection to the Disney brand rather than on Owen's life story itself, but the more I think about it, but more I believe that this film shows the connective tissue that a film can create both for an individual and a community as a whole. 

If you had told that freshman-aged Shaun that in ten years he would be actively seeking out new and exciting documentaries, he wouldn't have believed a word you said. At the time, I was only just starting to learn about the power and magnitude the medium of film can bring, and I held steadfast in my cravings for the standard narrative format. That Shaun may have completely missed the opportunity to see a beautiful documentary such as Life, Animated. It's a film that does wonders in showing the everyday lives of those struggling with autism, and it does a wonderful job reminding us that not only children are affected by this disorder. In that regard, Life, Animated serves as a fantastic illustration for the community of adults struggling to get through their everyday lives, finding any number of ways to cope with the outside world, and it opened my eyes to the true nuances of what it must be like to be an adult living with autism. Beyond all of that, however, Life, Animated also works as a true love letter to the movies, showing us all through Owen's eyes the true staying power that film can create.