Most of us savour the classic Disney, feature-length cartoons as a way to escape reality for a couple of hours and witness truly fantastic adventures that either have a happy ending or drive home an important moral lesson.
But for Owen Suskind, the larger-than-life, fanciful leading characters¾and most importantly the vast array of their sidekicks which add spice to the storytelling whether good guys or bad¾become the bedrock of his autistic world. Perhaps cartoons have never served a better purpose.
Director Roger Ross Williams has done a superb job of morphing Owen’s father, Ron’s book to the screen. Not only is the material, necessarily, a first-hand account of Owen’s journey into adulthood but his dad’s former experience as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal is very much in evidence with taut writing and scenes that are allowed to truly speak for themselves.
Alongside the many clips from Disney’s hallowed canon, the talented folks at MAC Guff have rendered the original animation depicting young Owen’s imagination with remarkable skill and sensitivity (especially the “Evil in the Forest” sequence that will help all viewers begin to understand just how the world might look and seem to those living with autism).
The entire Suskind family courageously lets Thomas Bergmann’s camera capture moments of joy, sorrow, hope and despair. Older brother Walter is particularly candid when trying to broach the subject of sex with his precocious sibling or quietly reflecting on how life will be once their parents are no longer in the picture.
A key moment in Owen’s gradually expanding and increasingly independent world is the sudden breakup with long-time girlfriend, Emily, not long after they’d both moved into separate apartments in an attendant-care facility.
An emotional call home to Mom reveals Owen’s fear of now being “sad forever.” Her reply, “Things are going to get better,” adds some balm to the wound, but not enough to heal it. “At least I waved to her,” (as Emily moves on) is a wry comment from the distraught man, yet indicates a deeper comprehension of this painful reality than many others who face the same predicament without autism affecting their point of view.
Sure, as Owen admits, it can be scary to grow up: if only we could all live in enchanted castles and magical worlds forever. But sidekicks all of ages, backgrounds and situations can rest assured that they have a worthy protector who will never let them down. JWR