At the age of 3, Owen Suskind stopped speaking. His non-verbal state, his parents soon learned, stemmed from autism. Owen’s ability to socialize was replaced by a keen interest in classic Disney movies, which he watched enough to memorize line-by-line.
By versing themselves in the language of Disney, Owen’s parents were able to reacquaint themselves with his inner life, and eventually help him regain his speech. Owen’s father, journalist Ron Suskind, has since presented the case to the UN, calling the progress he made with his son “affinity therapy,” a technique that’s now being studied by psychiatrists.
Suskind also wrote about Owen’s story in a book published by Disney imprint Kingswell. The book has since served as the jumping-off point for a film directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, whose documentary “Life, Animated” is up for an Oscar this year.
The movie opens at a crossroads: Owen, a young adult, is preparing to live independently. He tells his own story to Williams, explaining his interest in Disney heroes, villains and plots. He also shares his own creative endeavor, a story he wrote called “The Land of Lost Sidekicks,” a world filled with roaming characters who’ve been left behind by their heroic counterparts, who’ve gone on to fulfill their destiny. In Owen’s story, which Williams says is parallel to Owen’s life, the sidekicks have to find their inner heroes.
“That, to me, was screaming to be animated,” Williams told The Huffington Post in an interview. “This film was really about giving people like Owen ― people that have been left behind, people that don’t have a voice ― a voice.”
And Williams ensured that the film didn’t editorialize Owen’s story, but rather, provided a platform for Owen to narrate his own goings on. He’s the only person who speaks over the course of the film, and his story, “The Land of Lost Sidekicks,” is brought to life as an animation, so viewers can literally enter a product of his imagination.
“That was a way for the audience to have a direct connection to Owen as he narrated his own story,” Williams said.
Williams emphasized that the message of his film, ultimately, is about the enduring power of storytelling. Although Owen’s stories of choice ― classic Disney films ― were cultural touchstones and spoke to the time in which they were made, they were adapted from centuries-old fairy tales.
“Owen has grown up on a diet of myths and fable and story,” Williams said. “We all need story to survive, but this is about the power of story to transform one life in such a profound way.”
Williams says that making the film was an informative and inspiring experience; heading into the project, he knew very little about autism, and now he feels strongly about supporting the journeys of autistic individuals.
“What I learned is that there’s a whole population of people ― a growing population of people ― living with autism, who have so much to offer the world, and we can learn so much from them. We’re losing out if we toss them aside and look past them,” Williams said. “I’ve always felt myself like an outsider. I think I connected with Owen on that level. Here I am, a black gay man, from really outside of the mainstream. Owen is someone who he says people look past, and I think we connected on that level.”
“In this day and age, we need hope, and we need that message that everyone ― we’re all ― everyone should be included. And that’s the theme in all my work. I want to tell the story of the outsider, and humanize the outsider. I think no one would be left behind.”