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A Boy With Autism Makes Connections Through Cartoons In 'Life, Animated'

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I have some reservations about the documentary Life, Animated, but they can't undermine how moved I was watching its subject, Owen Suskind, who has autism, figure out how to navigate the world using Disney cartoons as a reference point.

Here's the scenario laid out by the movie, which is directed by Roger Ross Williams from a book by journalist Ron Suskind. When Owen, Suskind and his wife Cornelia's second son, was born, he seemed "normal" until age 3, when, as Suskind puts it, he "vanished." His motor skills deteriorated. He lost what language he'd attained. Austism was diagnosed. "Someone kidnapped our son," Suskind says.

The young Owen is seen in videos as well as original animated scenes by the French visual effects company Mac Guff. But much of Life, Animated follows the Suskind family today. Owen is 23 and in the process of graduating from a special school in Cape Cod. He'll be moving into his own apartment in an assisted-living facility. He has a girlfriend. He's still watching Disney cartoons. He even runs a Disney cartoon club, which he says makes him popular with other students.

The movie jumps back and forth between Owen now and as a little boy, when his parents were showing him those cartoons just to keep him calm. One day he came to his parents saying words they could barely understand — which turned out to be, "Just your voice."

It's a phrase from The Little Mermaid, whose heroine is told she'll have to surrender something — "Just your voice." Over and over Owen says those words, and a doctor tells the Suskinds it might be "echolalia" — that is, mere repetition. Or it might be, Suskind says, a sign that, "He's still in there."

There's no way of knowing if or when Owen would have found his voice without Disney — no way of exploring that road not taken. But watching Life, Animated, I could extrapolate some things. As I watched Owen pace, hands behind his back, showing anxiety and self-consciousness as he tried to learn social cues, I thought maybe it helps that he can identify with a character in a movie. Maybe this is how someone with autism can learn empathy.

But the most marvelous part of Life, Animated is when Owen conceives of his own animated film, based on his feeling that he'll never be a hero, someone capable of making strong choices and leading, but only a sidekick to a hero. He writes and sketches Land of the Lost Sidekicks — which director Roger Ross Williams actually turned into a film. What we see of that film is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. As a feat of imagination, it's heroic.

Owen's story is hardly settled in Life, Animated. His brother is being interviewed when a call comes in that Owen's girlfriend has broken up with him. That makes sense to me — Owen does seem a bit clutchy in his scenes with her. Now he's bereft, uncomprehending.

That's the sad part of the movie, as his father suggests when he worries that Owen needs to learn to fail and fail again and keep moving on: You can't learn everything in life from a Disney cartoon.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


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