When he was almost 3 years old, Owen Suskind — a bright, talkative toddler — retreated into a hidden world all his own. Later diagnosed with autism, he began to experience deeply troubling developmental problems, eventually ceasing to speak altogether. It wasn’t until his father, Ron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, casually began to play with a hand puppet that Owen’s isolation cracked open. Taking on the persona of Iago, the villainous sidekick in the animated movie “Aladdin,” Ron elicited from Owen the kind of engaged, self-aware conversation that he and the rest of the Suskind family thought had been erased forever.
“Life, Animated,” Roger Ross Williams’s documentary about Owen and his family, chronicles how movies — specifically Disney cartoons — have helped Owen, now 25, process his emotions and life experiences. Based on Ron’s 2014 memoir of the same name, the film captures a crucial turning point in Owen’s burgeoning independence, as he moves out of the family home and into a supervised apartment facility, navigates a budding romance and finds his first job.
The story is an inspiring one, made even more emotionally stirring by the radiant, resilient, high-functioning young man at its center. His voice affecting the high-pitched lilt of his favorite Disney sidekicks, Owen is a supremely charismatic protagonist, whose triumphs and setbacks are so instantly and effortlessly empathized with that an entire audience at the film’s AFI Docs screening gasped in concerned unison when he burned his finger on a hot cookie sheet.
Owen is such an appealing subject, and the Suskinds’ support so unquestionably energetic and admirable, that “Life, Animated” begins to feel overinsistent, both as a valentine to Disney and as a testament to a family’s love. The overpowering joy and sense of relief when Ron discovers a pathway to his son is contagious, but we don’t need the constant underlining of how perfectly Disney’s ur-myths capture such human universals as fear, rejection, hope and perseverance. (A movie-within-a-movie, featuring Owen in his own hero’s tale, is animated with painterly sensitivity by the design group Mac Guff.)
Rather than yet one more celebratory montage of Disney clips, “Life, Animated” could have benefitted from Williams asking more probing questions: Does Owen watch movies other than cartoons? The obviously dramatic benefits notwithstanding, are there any costs to this form of socialization? Apart from a joking observation from his unfailingly loyal big brother (prophetically named Walt) about “Disney porn,” how will Owen learn the birds-and-bees mechanics of romance and sexual attraction?
As he explained during a Q&A session after the AFI Docs screening, Williams — a friend of the Suskinds — preferred to make “Life, Animated” from “the inside out,” eschewing artistic distance in favor of intimacy that sometimes feels a little too incuriously cozy. Still, even viewers uncomfortable with the Disneyfied uplift will be grateful for the chance to spend time with Owen, a born leader who’s not only a delightful and memorable leading man, but who radically reframes conventional understanding of the autism spectrum. “Life, Animated” makes fascinating points, about the power of cinema, about meeting our loved ones where they are and, as Ron says, about who gets to decide what constitutes a meaningful life. That is a probing question — and “Life, Animated” provides a bracingly optimistic answer.
PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains some mature thematic elements and strong language including a suggestive reference. 91 minutes.
Owen Suskind’s family — his father, Ron; mother, Cornelia; and brother, Walter — will participate in Q&A sessions at the following screenings: 7:20 p.m. on July 8, and 4:10 and 7:20 p.m. July 9.