I got to participate in a documentary film festival that my city hosts each year. This was the first year that I really wanted to make an effort to attend (young children do not make good documentary film audience members), and I'm not sorry that I did. I have a feeling that I'll be seeing a lot more movies next year, but this year I was able to see two. Both were very good, in different ways, but the one that I want to talk about today is Life, Animated.
Life, Animated is about a young, autistic man who is going through some major life changes. He's finishing school and getting ready to move into an apartment away from his parents. That's basically it, but there's so much more to it than that.
A friend of mine saw it on one of the first days of the festival and posted on Facebook about how moving it was. After hearing the general premise, I knew that I needed to see this film. I was able to get last minute tickets, wrangled a friend and some free time, grabbed my tissues, and was super excited to go. Evidently the gentleman who is featured in the film, Owen Suskind, was at a few of the first showings of the film. I was hoping he'd be there when I saw it, but I saw the very last screening and he had already left.
I struggle with how I feel about this movie, honestly. I can see why people would think it'd be something I'd need to see. It certainly hit home, and I needed the tissues when the parents were recalling the diagnosis phase of Owen's life. Owen had developed typically until age 3, when he stopped speaking and lost a lot of his motor skills. His parents spoke about how it was like he disappeared.
Eventually, he did start acquiring skills, and by the time we see him as an adult, he is very well spoken. But, by the clips that they showed of Owen in his younger days, the skills were hard-earned. This young man has received a massive amount of therapy. He has an excellent support system in place, and affluent, caring parents.
When Owen started scripting Disney films as a way of communication, I could certainly relate. A lot of my own life was trying to find meaning in Magic School Bus scripts for several months. Owen's family did this for years.
After the diagnosis part, when they started talking to Owen about moving on with his life, I started having an anxious feeling in my stomach. The film started to skirt the line of inspiration porn, and I was so worried that it was going to cross completely over.
Here we are watching this young man deal with some very real life experiences, just like anyone does as they age. He falls in love and has his heart broken. He has anxiety about living on his own. He struggles with wanting to get a job. All very typical things.
As I'm laughing and smiling at how blatantly honest Owen is in his communication, I'm cringing that we are getting to see these very intimate parts of his life. He bakes cookies with his girlfriend and it is a total failure. Then, he burns his arm on the pan. His girlfriend says, "Well, at least we tried." The audience sighs for him. I do too, but really? Haven't we all done that? Owen's cookies didn't burn because he's autistic. We don't need to feel sorry for him for that.
I felt for him when his girlfriend dumped him. The most moving scene there was when his older brother, a neurotypical adult, gets the call. It was almost like someone had died. "Fuck!" he says. This is bad, yes. They don't know how Owen is going to handle it.
Owen calls his mom, lamenting life. Why do so many bad things happen?? Why does it feel like the world is ending? I really wish I could quote him directly here, because what he said was so great. But how the mom responded was even better. Bad things happen, she says. They happen all the time, to everyone. And it hurts. But it will get better.
Such a normal thing, heartbreak. A life lesson, as it were.
Also kind of cringe worthy: when his girlfriend wants to break up, they have to have both teams of case-workers there at the breakup. They didn't film that, thank God, but I shudder to think how that very intimate moment felt with several adults in the room with them. I kind of get why it needed to be that way, but seriously? How unbelievably awkward for everyone involved.
So here we are, following Owen. He's doing his thing, he gets a job, he gets invited to speak at a conference in France regarding scripting as a therapeutic tool. And, by the way, I absolutely loved how his parents approached that. When Owen was first diagnosed, they were in the early 1990s, and not a lot about autism was known. In fact, they were dumped by their pediatrician, who told them that he was in over his head.
But Owen's parents never did take issue with Owen's scripting. They heard what he was trying to say. After not speaking for three years, one of the first things Owen said was, "Walter is sad because he doesn't want to grow up. Like Mowgli." And his parents' jaws hit the floor.
We see several scenes where Owen is going through some life issues, then chooses the perfect scene to watch from the perfect Disney film. You can see how he processes his feelings by watching the films.
Then, the movie ends, undramatically. Owen's life is moving on. Credits roll and the audience is obviously very moved by what they have seen.
And I'm sitting there, thinking, "Huh."
The director comes out and starts answering questions. All is going well, he's known the family for a long time. He praises the parents, talks about his own work with the disability community. People are asking good questions.
Then, it comes. An older woman stands up and says, "I guess I need to do more reading about autism. I didn't realize that a child could develop normally and then have this happen. Did the parents consider something environmental, or vaccines or something?"
Chin to my chest, I whisper, "Please don't ask that question."
The director, bless his heart, says, "Yeah, there are different presentations to autism. Some kids do develop typically and then, like Owen, change. And we will probably never know what causes autism. BUT WE ARE NOT INTERESTED IN A CURE. We just want acceptance."
I was the first one clapping when he said that. And that is why he stayed on the safe side of inspiration porn, in my eyes. But this was a comment by the director that I had the benefit of hearing. I wish he had said that louder in the film. If he did say it, it was very quiet.
So, how did I feel about it? Did I need to see this film? Maybe. Probably.
But honestly, I'm happier that the other 1500 people in the theater got to see it.
See, even though Owen's story is not exactly like my daughter's, they are related. This is my ordinary. I already know all of these things. This was not a life changing movie to me, because we could easily be in a similar movie.
To me, the film was not earth shattering. But, the simple fact that so many audience members thought it was mind blowing made me think, "Wow, there's a lot of work to do, still." So, I am happy that the film exists. It will help do the work. I'm happy that the Suskind family shared their story. I'm sure it was very difficult to do. I think they are doing a great job. The mom and I would probably be friends.
I'm also very pleased that it was about an autistic adult. We tend to focus on children when we think of autism, but there are certainly plenty of autistic adults out there. There's work to be done in making sure that their voices are heard, instead of talked over or down to.
I'm pleased that I saw the film, but sad that it needs to be said: That Owen is a normal person going through normal things. Just a little differently. That's really the crux.
(Evidently the film is coming to theaters in the summer. I'd highly recommend seeing it. Whatever your relation to autism, even if it's non-existent, it will make you think.)