This Friday in the UK sees the release of Roger Ross Williams’ inspiring new documentary, Life, Animated, and I cannot recommend it enough.
I saw the film back in January when I went to Sundance. It was the very first film I saw as it had been chosen as the opening volunteer screening. I hadn’t originally planned on seeing Life, Animated but I’m very glad and thankful that this film was chosen for me. What an absolute delight it is!
Life, Animated tells the story of Owen Suskind, who when he was three-years-old, was diagnosed with autism. He withdrew within but found a way to make sense of the world and communicate with his family through watching Disney movies. The film is a beautiful coming-of-age story based on a book Ron Suskind, Owen’s father, had written about his son and his family.
I did not expect to be so affected by Life, Animated, and I guess it took me some time to understand why it moved me so much. Owen’s story is truly uplifting. Your heart breaks when Cornelia, Owen’s mother, recounts how doctors said he may never speak again, and that they may have lost their child forever. But they never gave up and they kept being attentive, and when that one moment came, they held onto it and began all over again. Roger Ross Williams does a wonderful job of taking us on Owen’s extraordinary journey from childhood to the young man he is today, through troubling and difficult times, and through sweet, funny and happier times too. It breaks and mends your heart all at once, and few films – in fact, few stories – manage to do so, so beautifully. “Inspiring” is perhaps one of the most overused words in the English language, but Life, Animated truly is inspiring.
But beyond Owen’s incredible story, Life, Animated, deeply resonated with me as a film lover. Much like Owen, who not only found shelter, but a way to understand his place in the world through Disney movies, I have a lot to thank film for. Film has given me some of my favourite family memories, it has also taught me a lot about myself and the world, it has changed my perception of things on many occasions, and more importantly, it has offered me a safe space and somewhere to escape to, many times, when I truly needed it. Sometimes, when life is too much, it is reassuring to know that you can just go away for a couple of hours, losing yourself to another world, just for a little while. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to hold onto that world for a little while longer after the film is over, and it might even walk you home.
Watching Life, Animated, reminded me of how much I love cinema and how much it means to me, and that in many ways, it has somewhat saved me a little. A bit like Owen, only under different circumstances.
Film doesn’t mean the same to everybody, but to me, it means a great deal. And although it took me a long time to understand just how much, it has always been there for me. I was a very shy child, and an even shyer teenager. I didn’t have many friends, and even with my friends I didn’t always feel comfortable. I remember going to the cinema on my own. I never had to tell anyone, not even my parents. There was something very comforting about being able to go there and be myself and not have to respond to anyone, and go on all those journeys without fearing anything or anyone. It made me stronger and more confident and helped me built my character. I think the first time I truly understood the power of film, was when I was about 14 years old. We were watching Festen (I know, I know) during class and it triggered something in me I had never felt before. It was like a slap in the face – it woke me up and I remember thinking that I didn’t know cinema could do that and how much more I had to explore. But it’s not really until I was an adult, that I really understood the influence it had on me, and I worked hard to make sure film would have a very big place in my life from that moment on.
Today, I work in film. Sometimes, I forget just how much it means to me. I’ll have short hiatuses where I won’t watch films for a few weeks, and then one day, I’ll put one on and as the end credits roll, I’ll realise just how much I miss watching films and how happy it makes me. I do truly believe that for my own personal health, one movie a day does keep the doctor away. But sometimes, it doesn’t take a hiatus to remind me of the power of cinema, sometimes it simply takes a film: a great one that takes me away for a few hours, or one that completely opens my eyes to something, or perhaps one that makes me feel things I hadn’t experienced yet. Life, Animated does all of those things and it also tells the world that cinema is important, maybe not to the person watching the film at that time, but it is important to someone else out there, who might be struggling but can find solace and understanding through it. And it also reminds us that film is great, in all of its breadth.
I was recommending Life, Animated to someone the other day and at the end of my pitch they said: “I was with you, and it sounded great, until you said it was Disney movies. Why couldn’t it be something better?” I told them they had missed the point, but also it reaffirmed my belief that just because I don’t like a film, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist (although there are exceptions, I’m sure). For some people, Disney movies are cheesy and unbearable, but for Owen, it was a fantastic open window onto a world he couldn’t quite grasp but that he wanted to be a part of. For some people, the films I enjoy are equally unbearable, and the battle between arthouse and mainstream will carry on until the end of the medium, probably, but at the end of the day, cinema is an art, and like all art, it is entirely subjective. Life, Animated is here to remind you that just because *you* might not see it, the meaning of it is in there somewhere, for someone else who might need it.
I have worn my Life, Animated badge proudly ever since watching the film. It reads: “no sidekicks gets left behind”, and although that phrase has a very specific meaning to Owen, it also means a great deal to me, in different ways. So please go watch Life, Animated in a cinema near you, especially if you are a film lover. Or, if you’re in the US, you might be able to buy it on VOD. You will not regret it and it might open your eyes onto an awful amount of things.