Life, Animated :: When Storytelling Saves Lives…

Cineville - Life, Animated

From the very first moments of Life, Animated — as long as you're not a sociopath — you start to ache with empathy for the Suskinds, the family at the heart of the story. That never lets up. You will ache with empathy all the way through this film and at regular intervals, your empathy will overflow in great outpourings of glorious sad joy. This is a wonderful documentary.

When Owen Suskind was 3 years old, he vanished. "Vanished" is his father's word. Owen didn't literally vanish. He just stopped talking and his motor skills deteriorated and soon after he was diagnosed with autism.

The documentary does a great job of making us feel the heartache of his parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, as we compare video footage of Owen before he became ill — just a normal kid playing with balls and swords — with an approximation of what his life might be like, post-autism, with garbled sound and nothing to cling on to.

Doctors confirm that the situation is probably hopeless and that Owen is lost to the world forever. One day, however, there is a breakthrough when amongst the gobbledegook that spills from his mouth, Owen starts repeating the words "just your voice". It's a line from The Little Mermaid and when he finally manages to communicate it to his parents, it's nothing short of a miracle. In Ron's words, "It's the first time he looks at me in a year."

From that moment on, animated films — particularly Disney films — have a central role in Owen's life and development, allowing him to make contact with his own emotions and ultimately communicate with the outside world.

Cineville - Life, Animated

The film flashes back and forth from his childhood to the present day, with Owen as a 23-year-old on the verge of his greatest challenge so far: independence. He's about to leave home for the first time and live in supported accommodation. We also see him in one of the film's most moving scenes, addressing a conference on autism in Paris. At the conference, he says these words:

"The way people see those with autism is that they don't want to be around other people. That's wrong. The truth about autistic people is that we want what everyone else wants, but we are sometimes misguided and don't know how to connect with others."

I was definitely one of those people who thought that people with autism didn't really want contact with other people. Now I know. 

As a child, all of Owen's breakthroughs are connected to Disney. The greatest of these is when his father talks to Owen through a glove puppet of Iago and Owen responds as if talking to an old friend. This is the first proper conversation they ever have and it's the key to reaching Owen and enabling him to communicate again.

Owen himself is kind of hilarious, often on account of his register being slightly out of whack, which means he often speaks with a distinct over-formality and a staginess. Speaking of his experience of being bullied as a teenager, for example, he says, totally deadpan: "I fell into darkness and walked the halls of fear."

Aside from introducing me to this wonderful family and teaching me lots about autism, one of the main things Life, Animated brought home to me was the power and importance of storytelling. The film reminds us that the greatest gift of storytelling — and indeed of all art — is that it shows us, categorically, that we're never really alone. 


Cineville - Life, Animated


The Viewing

This is only my third time at LAB111. LAB111 is the one with the stripped-back community hall feel and a cold blue screening room, hidden away east of Kinkerstraat. Kinkerstraat is my favourite street in Amsterdam. So far. It has the Hallen, and the stationery shop with the ukuleles and the vomit buckets.

Just before I came in here, I was locking up my bike outside when I heard a loud miaowing noise to which I immediately and instinctively responded in kind. A plaintive one-second burst (from me), mimicking as best I could the cry I heard. As I straightened up from my bicycle, I noticed a middle-aged gentleman passing by on his way to the cinema. He gave no sign of having heard my cry but somehow I could tell that he had and was very impressed. That's right, I thought. I speak cat.

Then came the cat. A beautiful marmalade cat, two-years-old at a guess, trotted up to me, all friendly and frotty, demanding attention. I don't know about you but I consider this a portent of the most delicious good fortune. A cat calls out to you like you've known one another all your life and greets you in the street with perfect, pure, needy demanding love. It made me very happy. So I had a little stroke and came in.

Now, sitting in my seat in the cinema, I am close to overwhelmed with joy as the lights dim and the Europa Cinemas advert plays. I dance in my chair. I realise I haven't smoked a pipe yet today so this happiness is 100% pure unadulterated lifejoy. Straight edge.

Then they showed this film about cauliflower sheep. It wasn't great, frankly, but I was very, very glad they showed it.

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you'll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven't already.

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