In the first seconds of my interview with Roger Ross Williams, the director asks me what films had influenced me the way that animated features had helped shape Owen Suskind, the subject of his latest documentary, Life, Animated.
The question catches me off-guard. Thirty-four years into my autistic life and 16 years into my writing career, I’ve developed a certain facility and appreciation for the social conventions of the interview. It’s an interpersonal interaction with a clear structure and pattern. The interviewer asks questions, generally prepared in advance (what we in the autism community call “scripting”), and the interviewee answers them. But I still occasionally struggle to navigate these conversations when they start to slip between that format and a more casual, reciprocal exchange.
In that moment of less-than-perfect preparation, I tell him that David Cronenberg’s films had a significant impact on my life. Like most things I say without careful planning and forethought, it’s an odd answer. So I try to explain an old collection of essays on Cronenberg’s films from the ‘70s and ‘80s that I used to obsessively borrow from my local library, how they described the weirdo Canadian director’s work in terms of the “unrequited life” that they explored, and how those films were essential to understanding my isolation and my futile struggle to fit into the world around me. Which was true, and maybe of potential interest, but no less odd.
In retrospect, I probably should have known that there was a possibility the question would come up and armed myself with something a little more fleshed out and less focused on exploding heads and twin gynecologists. I knew that I was going to tell Williams that my own relationship with film was what originally attracted me to Life, Animated, the story of a young autistic man whose love of Disney classics has both provided him solace and understanding and helped to facilitate his connections to his family and the outside world. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he would have asked a follow-up question with all of the thoughtfulness and curiosity of the Academy Award-winning documentarian that he is.
If I had planned ahead, I would have said that I didn’t sleep through the night for the first three and a half years of my life, and my exhausted parents somehow discovered that the thing that kept me busy and happy during my early morning hours of unwelcome consciousness was watching the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from Singin’ in the Rain over and over and over again (repetition is a big thing with people like me). That some of my first memories involve squealing and flapping in delight as Donald O’Connor manhandled a dummy through a giddy display of slapstick and dance.
Or maybe I would have brought up the time that my parents accidentally let me watch David Lynch’s Dune when I was six and how desperately I latched onto Alia, the little girl who had been born strange and overly articulate, but was still viciously loved and protected by her mother, and played an important role in the film’s final victory. Maybe I would have brought up the ‘90s teen comedies I watched to try to make some sense of my peers and find the common ground between us, or the Cronenberg and the Ingmar Bergman that I turned to when that didn’t entirely work and I just wanted to wallow and/or revel in my weirdness for a while.
The movies that autistic people love might be as wildly different as the people who choose them, but I believe that the connection that we have to those films – and narrative art in general – is an experience almost as intrinsic to being on the spectrum as sensory and social issues.
Life is confusing and overstimulating, but stories distill the essence of everything that both enthralls and confuses us into a contained plot. Through that microcosm, we can start to piece together the tools to help us understand and engage in the outside world. And when that outside world gets to be too much, we can retreat to the comfort of familiar favorite movies that we’ve seen countless times before, and the “friendship” of characters that make us feel a little less alone in the universe.
For Owen Suskind, it’s Disney’s cartoons that play all of these roles. He was already watching the films with his parents and older brother before he was diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental disorder in early childhood. But as his symptoms became more apparent, so too did the importance of those films. For his family, the movies became the conduit through which they could learn to communicate on terms that worked for Owen as well as themselves. For Owen, the stories of The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, and their ilk became a lens through which the live-action world around him could start to make sense. With repeated viewings of a beloved collection of VHS cassette tapes, Owen was able to develop his verbal communication skills and hone his complex and empathic grasp of other people in his life. The cartoons’ sidekicks, particularly Iago from Aladdin, were also a source of comfort. To this day, Owen sees kindred spirits in those characters and can turn to them in times of trouble. He also uses the sidekicks as a way to express himself, writing stories about their adventures together that provide a unique window into his own life and thoughts.
Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, first wrote about this unique relationship in his New York Times bestselling book, Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. Using that book as a launching pad, Roger Ross Williams’ film retraces Owen’s early childhood development and follows him as he continues to use the lessons he learned from Disney to help guide him through early adulthood.
Williams had worked with Ron Suskind in the past, but knew little about Owen or about his condition going into the project. “I didn’t know anything about autism. I didn’t know anyone who had autism, and I was quite uncomfortable in the beginning because of that.”
He says that his developing understanding of autism is reflected in the way that Owen is introduced to the audience. “When we first meet Owen in the film, he’s self-talking and he’s pacing and you don’t know what to think, or maybe you’re a little uncomfortable, and by the end of the film, you know exactly what is going on in his head. So, as I learned to understand Owen as a filmmaker, that’s how I wanted the audience to take that journey and totally be immersed in Owen’s world and Owen’s head and really understand him.”
This might seem like a fairly straightforward idea to the uninitiated. It is, after all, the job of a good documentarian to facilitate some kind of understanding between their subject matter and their viewers. But to the autistic community, Williams’ approach here borders on the revolutionary.
Autistic love for cinema has been a largely unrequited affair up until now. Almost 30 years after its release, the well-meaning but stereotype-ridden Rain Man remains the most famous portrayal of the condition. To this day, people with perfectly good intentions still ask me if I can count cards.
And we’re lucky if movies even bother to treat us like a sidekick, instead of props through which the feelings and experiences of non-autistic people are rendered. Rain Man is, in essence, a story about how Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) makes his normal brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise), feel. Even the 2009 romantic comedy Adam, which holds a far less contentious place in many autistics’ hearts, is more about how Rose Byrne’s Beth journeys through dating an autistic man than the title character himself.
There have been a handful of documentary films that have made some excellent progress in this area in the past few years, including 2015’s Autism in Love, but few have been as adamant about prioritizing the autistic perspective and treating autistic people as human beings with their own stories and feelings as Life, Animated is.
Williams is a firm believer in the ability that film has to help increase empathy and understanding in all of its viewers and was aware of both the opportunity and responsibility that came with helping Owen to tell his story. “Film, especially documentary, is a powerful tool for change, and time and time again, I’m just amazed at how powerful it is and how much it can really change people,” he says. “It’s just an unbelievable way to transform the way that people think and feel about something, and it was important to me that this film was a coming-of-age story that is relatable to everyone, that we could see the universal notes of graduating and falling in love and moving out on your own, all of these universal things that people connect to emotionally to take this journey with Owen.”
It was also important to Williams that his film centered on Owen’s experience. “It was essential that this story be told from the inside looking out, as opposed to the outside looking in, that it was told from Owen’s point of view, because I don’t want this to be another autism film about some outsider looking at people living with autism. It was really important that this feels like Owen’s story told by Owen.”
To help facilitate that, Williams experimented with various methods of filming to find one that was comfortable and productive for his subject. Much like the Suskind family used Disney films to figure out a method of communication they could all use together, Williams and Owen worked together to develop their own common language.
“At some point, I realized that it wasn’t going to be the typical interview that I do where I just sit down and ask him questions. I needed to figure out a device that really got into his world and connect with him, and I realized … Hey, wait a minute: Owen’s spent his life looking at a television screen, and he can connect to these Disney animated characters. So I interviewed him on what is called an Interrotron, which is a camera setup where the subject is looking at a television screen of the interviewer. I was in another room, and he was looking at a television screen of me. So he’s looking directly into the camera, sort of looking directly at the audience, and telling his story. So I did that and then, to keep Owen engaged, which also became this great device, I played Disney animated clips in between questions. So Owen would interact with these clips, and then we’d [get a glimpse] inside Owen’s head as he mimicked the words and the action he saw on screen.”
Williams augments this interview and Disney footage with animations based on Owen’s own work to help deepen the audience’s understanding. And, at a particularly low moment in Owen’s journey, Williams also uses this animation to help reproduce the sensory overload that most autistic people experience in at least some capacity.
Trying to recreate and represent that experience for non-autistics can be a tricky venture, littered with hokey VR attempts and almost comically exaggerated footage, but Life, Animated’s attempts both impressed and overwhelmed me with their realism. While I was watching a screener of the film, I actually had to pause it at one point to calm down and catch my breath because it was that painfully accurate.
“By the time we get to Owen’s sidekicks, the world that Owen created that lives inside of his head where his sidekicks are advisors in his life, it needs to be an intense world, just like Owen lives in this world that is so intense in his head where all of these characters are talking to him, he says, at once. So it needs to be not just a visual sensation. Sound-wise, you needed to be completely immersed in his world,” Williams says of his vision for those scenes. “Getting it right and really hitting those notes, so to speak, literally, was really important. There was no dialogue. It’s a sound experience, and then Owen does a little narration, but it’s really a moment where you get to go deeper into Owen’s head so that, after that experience, by then it should click for the audience that you are in Owen’s world. For the rest of the film, you hopefully view things from Owen’s point of view.”
Again, this might just seem like good filmmaking to an outsider, but it’s something far more meaningful when you’re autistic. At a time where even most conventional therapy and treatment is still geared toward teaching autistic people to mimic “normal” behaviors and learn to communicate on non-autistic terms, with no expectation or even suggestion that our neurotypical counterparts might be willing to make similar sacrifices for us in return, Williams and his crew’s work with Owen has game-changing potential. In its thoughtful and utterly human engagement with its subject matter, Life, Animated doesn’t just represent an autistic man’s relationship to the films he loves. It also, potentially, provides the non-autistic with their own equivalent to Owen’s Disney films: something that they can watch to start to understand and communicate with us the way that so many of us have used our favorite movies to engage with them.
In both intent and execution, Williams’s empathy for his subject and his subject matter is absolutely clear. Given that Williams has made some deeply personal works in the past addressing everything from his family history (Secret Son) to his place in his community (God Loves Uganda), I ask him if the way that he’s approached the creation of film helped him to connect with Owen’s consumption of it. He believes it has, but points out that the connection goes deeper than that. He also identifies with Owen as a human being.
“Absolutely. For Owen, these films are sort of a blueprint. They’re a guide to how to live life and how to understand emotions, and I’ve used filmmaking as a type of therapy. It’s about my past experiences and my feelings of alienation or otherness or outsiderness. It’s about exploring that in the deepest possible way, and whether that’s with God Loves Uganda, which was my last film, exploring alienation from the church that I felt from my pastor father and family. But for this film, too, it was about exploring the idea that I’ve always felt like a sidekick, myself. I’m always making films about others, about people who are outside of the mainstream, and it’s not about their struggle to be accepted. It’s about us understanding them better and realizing that they have – and that I have – much to offer the world.”