Day four of my Sundance preview begins: LIFE, ANIMATED, Roger Ross Williams’ portrait of an autistic man’s transformative connection to Disney films.
US Documentary Competition
Sundance Program Description:
At three years old, a chatty, energetic little boy named Owen Suskind ceased to speak, disappearing into autism with apparently no way out. Almost four years passed and the only stimuli that engaged Owen were Disney films. Then one day, his father donned a puppet – Iago, the wisecracking parrot from ALADDIN – and asked “what’s it like to be you?” And poof! Owen replied, with dialogue from the movie.
LIFE, ANIMATED tells the remarkable story of how Owen found in Disney animation a pathway to language and a framework for making sense of the world. By evocatively interweaving classic Disney sequences with verité scenes from Owen’s life, the film explores how identification and empathy with characters like Simba, Jafar, and Ariel forge a conduit for him to understand his feelings and interpret reality. Beautiful, original animations further give form to Owen’s fruitful dialogue with the Disney oeuvre as he imagines himself heroically facing adversity in a tribe of sidekicks. With an arsenal of narratives at his disposal, Owen rises to meet the challenges of adulthood in this moving coming-of-age tale.
Director: Roger Ross Williams
This marks Williams’ sophomore documentary feature following GOD LOVES UGANDA (2013), which debuted at Sundance and went on to be shortlisted for an Academy Award. He previously won the Documentary, Short Subject Oscar for the 2010 film MUSIC BY PRUDENCE.
Producer: Julie Goldman; Co-Producers: Carolyn Hepburn and Christopher Clements
Motto Pictures’ Goldman is also an executive producer on fellow 2016 competition title WEINER. A seasoned Sundance veteran, her most recent past titles include last year’s BEST OF ENEMIES and 3 1/2 MINUTES, TEN BULLETS, as well as WE ARE THE GIANT (2014), MANHUNT (2013), GIDEON’S ARMY (2013), and UGANDA, among several other earlier titles. Her colleagues Hepburn and Clements also share credits on most of the Motto films noted above, including WEINER.
Executive Producers: Molly Thompson, Robert DeBitetto, Robert Sharenow, and Ron Suskind
A&E IndieFilms’ Thompson serves as producer for fellow 2016 US Competition title AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY, and counts several other Sundance alums among her extensive credits, including CARTEL LAND (2015), BEING EVEL (2015), and DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD (2015). Her colleague DeBitetto counts among his executive producer credits past Sundance docs CARTEL LAND, HAPPY VALLEY (2014), THE IMPOSTER (2012), UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (2012), CORMAN’S WORLD (2011), and this year’s AUTHOR, while Sharenow’s also include THE IMPOSTER, CORMAN’S WORLD, and AUTHOR. Suskind, Owen’s father, wrote the book upon which Williams’ film is based.
Why You Should Watch:
Owen’s childhood awakening via animated films is affective and uplifting, demonstrating how the Suskinds found a way to bridge the gulf autism placed between their son and the outside world. At the same time, his story does not just dwell in the past. Williams smartly follows the young man in the present day as he makes significant steps towards independence and adult concerns, while still drawing from his beloved Disney tales to provide a sense of connection, understanding, and joy.
For Sundance screening dates and times, click the link in the first paragraph.
To experience the festival through the eyes of this year’s filmmakers, follow my Sundance filmmaker class of 2016 Twitter list.