Director: Roger Ross Williams
View on: Amazon Prime
*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.
Life, Animated follows the story of Owen Suskin, a man with autism, and his family. The documentary follows Owen as he graduates from a high school program and moves into his own apartment at a group home complex at age 23. He experiences independence, love and loss, and pride during this time in his life. He gets his first job and is even invited to speak at a conference in Paris.
Owen learned at a young age to view the world through Disney animated movies, and has since memorized many, if not all, of them. At his high school, he starts a Disney club that has dozens of members who watch Disney movies and talk about how the movies relate to their lives. In one scene, two voice actors from Aladdin (Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar, and Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced Iago) come to the Disney club to surprise everyone. Seeing the happiness on the students faces is invigorating. It made me think of the corollaries in my own life – what if I went to a Hamilton sing-along and Lin Manuel Miranda walked in? Joy is universal!
Owens parents and brother talk candidly throughout the film about their experiences with Owen as he grew up. Understandably, they experienced quite a bit of frustration. They also felt anger and sadness when the world didn’t accept Owen or made him feel less than human. At one point, Owen’s mother recounts a conversation she and Owen’s father had years before where they envisioned what Owen’s life would be like in the future.
“So who decides what a meaningful life is?” -Ron Suskind, Owen Suskind’s father
Life, Animated reminded me that we all have our own struggles, and that even though some people interact with the world in a different way than I do, we all hope to fit in and be part of a community. I, for one, have not had many experiences with people with autism. I had just one friend in high school who was autistic, and he is the only person I ever went to school with who I knew had autism. I’ve never worked with anyone who had autism, at least that I know of. I’ve rarely had interactions with people who have autism. I’m not sure what that says about myself and our society, but my guess is that we have segregated our society based on what we have determined is “normal” and what is not. That goes for all things – race, religion, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities.
So what can you do? Owen was lucky because his family had the means to pay for him to go to specialized schools and life at a specialized group home complex. Many people aren’t so lucky. Autism Speaks is a national organization with many local chapters. They have fundraising walks throughout the U.S. that raise money for autism research and to make connections to supports and services for individuals with autism. Autism Speaks also has a lot of great information to learn about autism that are well worth the time if you’re able to look through them. In the end, I think it’s really about accepting other people, even if they interact with the world in a different way than we do.