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Life, Animated

Animated Disney films help an autistic boy develop into an engaging adult in this new doc

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This new documentary from Roger Ross Williams (who won an Oscar in 2010 for short documentary film) adapts journalist Ron Suskind’s eponymous memoir about raising his autistic son, Owen. At first, everything was great, Suskind explains, but when Owen was 3, he “disappeared,” regressing into silence and behavioral problems.

There is no one way to engage an autistic child, but for Owen and his family, the necessary tools were extraordinarily accessible: the animated Disney movies the family watched on video all the time. The exaggerated characters (the hero, villain, sidekick), broadly drawn emotions and colorful visual cues enabled Owen and his family to construct a “Disney language.” Initially, it drew Owen out of his nonresponsive state, but even as Owen progressed with language and other skills, the Disney language still served as a framework for Owen to understand and process new experiences.

Ultimately, Owen does well enough that, at age 23, he is preparing to leave the family home and set up in an independent-living facility. Much of the film focuses on this transition, in which Owen moves through familiar life benchmarks — leaving home, getting a job, breaking up with a girlfriend — but in his own fashion. Owen still uses Disney as a compass, even running a Disney-video-watching group for other developmentally disabled youths and facilitating post-screening discussions.

To tell the history, the film also offers extended interviews with Owen’s family (he has an older brother, Walter) and with Owen himself, who is an engaging narrator, bubbly and funny. Williams incorporates family videos, as well as animated sequences that illustrate Owen’s interior life, such as dreams or the superhero-ish fairy tale he created as a coping mechanism.

The film is the story of a single family and doesn’t offer any broader perspectives on the issues it raises: how autism affects a family, how to mitigate its effects, transitioning an autistic child into adulthood, anxiety about the future. Yet there is much to take away from Williams’ film, even if it’s just an understanding of one family’s unique journey, and one young man’s inspirational embrace of life.

Starts Fri., Aug. 5. (There are two scheduled sensory-friendly screenings: 4 p.m. Sun., Aug. 14, and 7 p.m. Thu., Aug. 18.) Hollywood Theater.

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