For the average person, finding the parts of the world in which you belong is one of the great struggles of life. People fail their way toward their goals every day: marriage, careers, hobbies, personal pursuits and goals. It’s the favorite topic of any great coming-of-age story, the struggle to assert yourself in a world that doesn’t always make sense and that can sometimes even be cruel. For Owen Suskind, the subject of Roger Ross Williams’ moving documentary Life, Animated, this process includes things that the average neurotypical viewer might not think about when piecing together one’s life comes to mind. Things like having to live with a strict daily regimen just to get by. Things like learning how to articulate yourself well enough to make sense to yourself and others.
Life, Animated is a story of cinema and uplift in one set, but crucially, it is also a story about a young man with autism attempting to solidify his place in the world as an independent adult. Based on a book by Owen’s father Ron, the documentary follows Owen as he graduates from a school for older students with developmental difficulties, and prepares to set out on his own for the first time at age 23. Owen is doing exceedingly well, as is clear from early on; he’s learned how to make the world fit together in a way that’ll let him move into his own apartment in a planned community, close to home but far away enough from it, but it’s a lot of stress for a man whose life requires him to have a certain level of established, patterned structure.
After all, it’s that kind of structure that’s helped Owen get this far in life already. Life, Animated opens in the present and then moves back to Owen’s early years, when he was a child, and started to show the onset signs of autism before the age of four. He withdrew socially, became almost entirely nonverbal (outside of what his family refers to as “gibberish” vocalizations), and remained this way for quite some time. But one day, while watching a Disney movie, Owen began to mirror the dialogue. He became fixated on Disney movies, particularly the animated ones. Given that Disney films tend to work in broad, specific emotional strokes, with clear heroes and villains and morality plays, they were a perfect window into not only Owen’s world, but the more chaotic one inside his head as well. And so, Disney animation became one of Owen’s greatest tools for understanding and relating to himself and everyone around him. Even the first conversation that Ron ever had with his son used a puppet of Iago from Aladdin as a necessary aid.
The great achievement of Life, Animated is the way in which Williams is able to frame all of Owen’s experiences around him. Narratives about autism too often tend to focus on the suffering and anguish of it all, particularly about those without it who live near or with those with it. The documentary keeps its focus on Owen at all times, and through a series of remarkably candid interviews, Owen is portrayed as a young man driven to push past his own perceived limitations, even as the most basic steps sometimes trip him up. He’s made a good life by way of his school: he does his work, he’s learned enough to embark on a relationship with a fellow student and get a job, and he’s even founded a Disney club to screen the movies he loves most for his peers. But leaving the school poses a greater challenge, because the bigger world isn’t always so cut-and-dry. And for his family’s strong belief that Owen will make it on his own, his parents and older brother worry about exactly what’ll happen if and when one day they won’t be able to prop him up when needed anymore.
Williams cuts the footage of Owen’s journey with animations that not only bring to life the characters that Owen loves to draw, but use them to frame the inner workings of his mind. It’s an intimate way to speak truth to a subject who sometimes can’t fully articulate the things going on within him. From early on, Owen identified less with the Disney heroes than with the sidekicks, and so most of his drawings and the stories he makes up with the characters involve sidekicks, people who are misunderstood and just want to help and be helped by those around them. They become Owen’s means of defining his sense of self, and when the typical stresses of everyday life become too much, it’s their presence that comforts Owen most. Williams avoids the maudlin or patronizing potential of this approach via footage of Owen watching the movies. It’s clear that when Owen sits down with one of his many VHS tapes that a viewing of one of his movies is so much more than just that. It’s therapy, and it’s a visit with an old friend, and it’s a solemn kind of ritual, and it’s a way to break from the world for a while, all at once.
In this way, Owen’s relationship with film is scarcely different from anyone else who’s ever become obsessed with movies. While Life, Animated is very much a celebration of Owen coming into his own, it’s also an affecting reminder of why people fall in love with certain corners of popular culture. The way in which Owen watches and absorbs movies is hardly different from your average “selective reading” that any critic or academic might employ, but there’s a sincerity to his Disney fixation that few can match. It’s a powerful reminder that one can truly never know what movie will resonate with which audiences, or why, and that it’s one of the last truly universal artistic media for this. When Owen’s life becomes difficult in ways he isn’t fully able to understand, he can sit down in front of Bambi, and the world becomes a little bit clearer.
Of course, using a movie to comprehend or escape from the world is hardly revolutionary, but such is the power of Life, Animated that it feels new again. The film does a remarkable job of humanizing Owen, and while at times it frankly addresses his struggles, Williams never pities his subject. Life, Animated doesn’t aim for “awareness” so much as a more honest, comprehensive understanding of autism as a shifting thing particular to each person affected. It’s a warmly empathetic documentary, the kind that simply observes instead of attempting to sound one kind of rallying cry or another. Above all, it makes the experience universal; Owen just wants to get a job and fall in love and trial-and-error his way through life like anyone else. But he’s also different, and Life, Animated doesn’t erase that either. Owen simply is who he is, and that’s enough.