Special Screenings of Autism Documentary “Life, Animated” for People on the Spectrum

Posted on August 16, 2016 at 10:56 pm

The award-winning documentary “Life, Animated” tells the story of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism, who used Disney movies to teach himself how to understand and communicate with other people. Regal Cinemas will have a special screening for those who need quieter environment in 30 cities around the country on August 27, 2016. This special one-day national screening date is part of Regal’s My Way Matinee screening series, featuring a sensory friendly screening environment to support those on the autism spectrum and their families.

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Disabilities and Different Abilities

Director Roger Ross Williams on “Life, Animated”

Posted on July 15, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Director Roger Ross Williams says that his new documentary, “Life, Animated,” is “a very universal coming of age tale. It’s really about growing up.”

But it is a very specific story as well. It follows Owen Suskind, a young man with autism, as he graduates and leaves home and gets a job. Suskind, whose father wrote a best-selling book also called Life, Animated, used Disney films to help him understand how people express feelings. And this movie does the same for us, especially those neurotypicals in the audience. As Roger Ebert said, movies are “an empathy machine,” taking us inside the lives, thoughts, and feelings of the characters. Like Owen, all of us use movies to learn about the world and our place in it.

Williams said, “I follow Owen for this very transformative year in his life as he graduates and becomes independent and falls in love and all the things that happens to everyone in life. We all go through these things. I was like, ‘Wow!’ This was a great opportunity because just the timing worked out that it was just this year that he was going to hit all of these big moments and see where it takes us. So I’ve always felt that this was something more than an autism film, it’s a coming of age story and it’s a story about the power of family and the power of love. So it has all of these themes working for it.”

The movie’s saddest moment is its most universal, when Owen’s girlfriend breaks up with him. Williams shows Owen’s crushing disappointment. “The wonderful thing about Owen is that he doesn’t have the same filter that we Because he lives in the moment he completely ignores the camera. So it feels much less like a documentary and more almost like you’re watching in narrative film unfold. Owen is just who he is naturally on camera. And I think because I have had a long-term relationship and known the Suskind family for so long that Ron and Cornelia were very comfortable and they trusted me. It was a difficult time but Ron and Cornelia before we even started said, ‘We have to show everything warts and all, and we have to be totally honest and totally open. If we are going to help people on their journey then we need to really show what the journey is like through the good and the bad.’ So that was really important to them and it was really important to Owen, even before when they were going to write the book. Owen always would say to me, even in the most difficult times he was like, ‘I’m helping other people, right?’ And I would be like, ‘Yes you are.'”

Williams said that he wanted the film to be Owen’s story. “It was really important for me as a filmmaker to tell the story from Owen’s point of view and from the inside looking out. Because there’s so many films about people with disabilities that are all from the outside looking in and it’s never their point of view, their reality. The whole point of this film is to get inside Owen’s head, get inside Owen’s world and see the world through Owen’s eyes. And it starts sort of uncomfortably because you see him pacing and talking. But by the end you know exactly what’s going on inside his head. You’re totally comfortable and it’s even a little bit unnerving for some people because they’re so comfortable, they are so engrossed in Owen’s world. Because he grew up on myth and fable and story it’s such a rich world. I had this craziest thing the other day. After one of the screenings, someone came up to me and said ‘After seeing this film I wish I were on the spectrum.’ That’s the greatest compliment.”

And it was important to him that the film was also the story of a family. “Someone also came up to me and said, ‘I love my parents but I really wish Ron and Cornelia were my parents.’ I grew up in a broken home with single mother who struggled and even as a child I always gravitate towards family and stories about warm, loving families. So it was important to me that this is also a story about love and the family and that connection because they have such a powerful connection and bond. For me the real hero of the story is Cornelia who is just an amazing mom.”

Owen’s brother Walt plays an important role in the film. He clearly loves his brother and wants so much for him. And he understands that he will be responsible for him someday. “You have to grow up quick pretty quickly. You have responsibility. He always says he feels like a third parent. And they invite him to be part of that and make the decisions but I don’t think until they saw the film they realize how much it troubled him, how much responsibility he felt. They never had that conversation and that moment which happens to be his birthday when he gets emotional I was like, ‘Wow!’ He went down to the pier. It’s a big responsibility and he feels that, that responsibility and he also felt sort of a bit ashamed that he didn’t do enough when kids were making fun of Owen.”

Disney is normally very protective of its characters and content, but Williams knew it was essential to be able to include the movies that meant so much to Owen in the film. He brought footage of Owen’s Disney club, all people with autism who love Disney films, when he met with the executives. “By the time we were done they were all in tears. It was amazing. I think they were touched that the films they created could change someone’s life in such a way really, really moved them.”

Like Owen, Williams says he identifies with the sidekicks in stories more often than the heroes. “I feel like a sidekick. That’s why it resonated with me because I am sort of on this similar journey. It’s not as extreme as Owen’s but it is a journey of wanting to be accepted and find my inner hero. I come from a broken home, with a single mother who struggled and lots of family problems and I overcame those and had to constantly find my inner hero. So this story really resonates with me in a way that’s very personal. I think every documentary is personal. I don’t think you can make documentary or be able to sustain the life of a documentary if it’s not personal.”

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Behind the Scenes

Owen Suskind and His Parents Talk About the Autism Documentary “Life, Animated”

Posted on July 8, 2016 at 8:00 am

Owen Suskind tells me, “It feels interesting to be on the autism spectrum and fascinating.” His parents remember what he has said to them about how it feels to have autism. Ron Suskind reminds him, “Remember you said you see everything at once and you can remember all the moments in your life, maybe too many moments, but you go across them and you get a sense of what?”

“My place in the world,” Owen answers.

Cornelia Suskind adds, “And sometimes it’s a little overwhelming having all the stimulation coming in to you at once. You need to create a quiet space around you. When you were younger it was hard to communicate, language was really hard.”

The Suskinds were there to talk about their new documentary, “Life, Animated,” based on Ron’s best-selling book about Owen and how he taught himself about the world through Disney films. The movie is about Owen and autism and the scary and exciting adventure of leaving home, but most of all it is about family. The Suskinds are one of the most loving, devoted, and compassionate families ever to appear on screen. It is a joy to spend time with them, whether through the book, the film, or an interview.

Owen has regressive autism, meaning that he developed along typical milestones until about age 2½, and then lost his ability to communicate and continue to develop. He loved to watch Disney animated films but barely spoke until age 6, when he suddenly told his parents that his brother Walt did not want to grow up, “like Peter Pan and Mowgli.” Owen was using Disney films to teach himself how people feel, behave, and communicate.

“They helped me communicate to find my place in the world and get my speech back,” Owen said.

Cornelia explained, “Movies are always the same. Every time you pop it in, every time you put in a VHS it will always be the same movie and the same language and the same characters instead of constantly changing, the way it does with people, even my expressions, with you and me sitting here. it’s always the same, very, very exaggerated, very colorful. And I think the combination of the music and animation together activating those parts of the brain were really key in tapping into how Owen was feeling but not able to express.”

When Owen was younger, he preferred hand-drawn animation “because it does expressions and feelings.” Now, he likes computer animation as well, perhaps because it has come closer to hand-drawn in its expressiveness and richness of detail. He has very strong views about sequels: “The only four theatrical animated sequels I love are ‘The Rescuers Down Under,’ ‘Fievel Goes West,’ ‘Toy Story II’ and ‘Fantasia 2000’ and the only direct-to-video animated sequels I love are after the very first film of ‘The Land Before Time’ the animated film theatrical in 1988 were ‘The Land Before Time’ direct to video animated sequels. I would go all the way until the 10th one from late 2003, early 2004 and then conclude right there.” He loves to draw the sidekick characters, who have special meaning for him. His favorites are Sebastian from “The little Mermaid,” Iago from “Aladdin,” and Lucky Jack from “Home On The Range.”

Owen has his own YouTube channel, Owen’s Disney Club, where he discusses his favorite movies, displays Disney paraphernalia currently available for bid on eBay in a weekly “Finds of the Week” screencast, tours his personal collection of rare and hard-to-find Disney items, and interviews special guests.

Owen may be the only fan whose favorite Jimmy Stewart role is in “Fievel Goes West,” where his character says, “Just remember Fievel, one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills but if you ride yonder, eyes steady, head up and heart open, I think one day that you’ll find that you are the hero that you’ve been looking for.”

Owen pointed out that Stewart, like a surprising list of other stars, made his last performance in an animated film. Another favorite is Mary Wickes, whose last performance was as a gargoyle in “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Owen quoted her: “Life’s not a spectator sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, then you’re gonna watch your life go by without ya.”

Cornelia’s hopes for the movie are equally inspiring: “If we could share a little bit of a positive experience, not that obviously every minute in the film is a positive and our every minute has not been positive, but just the reality of it for people to get another image of what a person on the spectrum is like instead of ‘Rain Man,’ to see how fully realized Owen’s life is and that his wants and desires are every bit exactly the same as ours. I mean it’s extraordinary, it really is. So we’ve guided him for sure and try to teach him but he teaches us a lot more in a profound way.” And in this movie, they teach us all.

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Disabilities and Different Abilities Documentary Interview

Life, Animated

Posted on July 7, 2016 at 5:34 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional upheavals
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 8. 2016
Copyright 2016 The Orchard
Copyright 2016 The Orchard

Temple Grandin described her experience of trying to understand social interaction as a person with autism: like an anthropologist on Mars. The kinds of social cues that come naturally to neurotypicals can seem strange and even disorienting to people on the autism spectrum, who may be overwhelmed with undifferentiated input that makes it even more difficult to understand the mood and motives of the people around them. “Life, Animated,” based on the best-seller by Ron Suskind, is the story of Owen Suskind’s efforts to use Disney animated films to help him understand and communicate with the people around him. Taking up where the book ends, it is the story of the most universal of human experiences — leaving home, becoming independent, negotiating romance and work — as seen through the unique mind of a man who finds his answers in Disney movies.

And of course so many Disney movies are about growing up. We see Owen watching Wendy in “Peter Pan” as she says, “I have to grow up tomorrow.” And Owen tells us he is a little nervous and a little excited about graduating and moving out of his parents’ house and into a group home.

Owen was developing normally until age three, and then suddenly he “vanished.” He stopped speaking. “It’s like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping.” His parents found themselves in those less-friendly doctor’s offices, the ones that have rooms with special windows for observation. Owen was diagnosed with “pervasive developmental disorder,” which basically means: “we have no idea what the problem is or how to fix it.”

The Suskinds, one of the most loving, wise, and devoted families ever put on film, were determined to undertake “a rescue mission to get inside this prison of autism and pull him out.”

And it turned out, from the inside of that prison, Owen was on his own rescue mission. Suddenly, at 6 1/2, after years of no clear sign that he could still speak or of how much he understood, he said to his parents after his brother’s birthday party, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli and Peter Pan.”

That is not only a complex sentence; it is a complex idea. The family began to use the Disney films as a sort of English as a second language mode of communication. Owen’s father used a puppet of “Aladdin” character Iago to speak to him, and Owen answered back. “We began to speak to him in Disney dialog.” As an expert in the film notes, animated characters are exaggeratedly expressive. Their fear, anger, and affection is clearly shown, and repeat viewings are illuminating and reassuringly the same, a welcome consistency in a world of chaos and unpredictability. “Disney keeps the world neat and tidy.”

It also gives Owen a chance to interact. He starts a Disney club for other people with autism. A surprise visit from two Disney voice talents is a movie highlight, and, clearly for the actors unused to such unalloyed enthusiasm, a career highlight for them.

And Owen draws the characters, too. But only the sidekicks, never the principals, the stars. Perhaps he feels that he is a sidekick as the people around him have adventures he will not.

Director Roger Ross Williams, a family friend, is clearly trusted by the family and he more than earns it with a sensitive, understanding approach. With the permission of Disney, he includes clips and animation inspired by Disney that tells Owen’s story in a way that lets us see through his eyes the way that “Peter Pan” and “Aladdin” let him see through ours.

Parents should know that this film includes discussions of autism, growing up, and separation, a painful break-up, and a mild sexual reference.

Family discussion: What movie helped you understand feelings and communication? What is the best way for families and friends to help people like Owen?

If you like this, try: “How to Dance in Ohio” and “The Story of Luke”

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