AFI Docs '16: "Life, Animated" Review

One of the many nightmares that a parent can have in regard to their child, is for them to disappear. At 3 years old, Owen Suskind did just that. He wasn’t kidnapped. Autism took control of his life and garbled the way he interpreted the world around him. Life, Animated tells the story of the Suskind family and how they used Disney animated movies to make sense of the world and communicate with each other.

After a year of silence, Owen’s father Ron, realized that Owen was saying lines from the Disney film Beauty and The Beast. It became clear that Owen was using the movies that he’d seen to make sense of the world around him. The family began to communicate with Owen using the movies, which never changed, to help Owen understand the ever changing world around him.

Switching between home videos and present day, we’re able to see Owen and his family grow older. We’re entrenched with the family as the recall coping and dealing with Owen’s regressive Autism through the years in moving stories that have animations to go along with them. At the present time, Owen is about to graduate from a program that will help him live independently. We’re able to witness Owen deal with his first big heartbreak and living on his own.

Throughout the film, independent studio Mac Guff beautifully animates commentary from the family and even Owen’s story that he created. The animation both illustrates their words and gives us a glimpse into Owen’s mind and cast of characters. Pete Horner does an excellent job of mixing the audio in the film as well. The cacophony of sound that clashes in Owen’s ears is demonstrated with the sound bed of the film and helps to draw us into Owen’s world even more.

One issue I had with the film is that while it seeks to help us understand Owen’s world with Autism, it misses on a big opportunity to educate the viewer on the Autistic world asa whole. The microscopic viewpoint of one family with an amazing connection to Disney animated films makes for an interesting hook in a documentary, but what about other families that aren’t as fortunate? It’s pretty obvious that the Suskind family is a tight knit clan filled with love, the awesome ability to put Owen in a special school when he was younger, and a program when we meet him presently in the film. Yet, my mind went to the families of other children with Autism that may not have the same opportunity. 

Life, Animated is a solid documentary about the love of a family and perseverance of a young man with Autism. While some scenes seem stretched out for time, the feels are all throughout this film. Using Disney movies is not only a way to communicate amongst the Suskind family, but it’s just as easy to adapt and understand as a viewer of the film due to our own fondness of the animated classics. 

Rating: B

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

AFI Docs '15: "The Three Hikers"

Much like 2014’s hit “Citizen Four”, “The Three Hikers” informs us of a story that received national attention. While most of us remember the story of three American hikers- Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal- who were detained against their will in July 2009, we don’t know the story from an insider’s perspective. The documentary gives us an intimate portrayal of the journey of the families of the political prisoners.

On July 31, 2009 Iranian border guards took Sarah, Shane and Josh into custody for crossing into Iran while hiking near the border. As the film begins we never see the three in an interview setup, but hear them in voiceover with reenactments visually detailing what happened. Occasionally we see footage taken by the hikers in the days leading up to being detained. The parallel story that runs is the families’ reaction to the news of their child/brother/sister being detained, drawing us in to the conflict and keeping us on pins and needles even though we know the outcome.

In truth, “The Three Mothers” may be a better title for the film because the story follows their fight to free their children. It’s in their story that the universal truth of the impact that a mother’s love can have on a person, situation, event, and beyond is told!  The emotional journey is arduous, beautiful, and universally understood. The film also shows other family members (including Sarah after she was freed) who were truly integral in fighting for the hikers’ release. 

Writer/director Natalie Avital strays away from the typical talking head set up usually seen in documentaries and keeps it intimate by getting family member’s thoughts on the go or in their homes. Going against having family members constantly give feedback to the camera in a controlled environment allows viewers to get a fly on the wall view that feels more personal rather than clinical. Avital obviously had the families’ confidence and trust as evident by the openness of each person who gave an interview.

Many documentaries end after a climactic event, and in this case it’s the release of Shane and Josh. In fact, the emotional reunion of them with their families would leave viewers on a high note by itself in which we can assume they lived “happily ever after”. Yet Avital continued to capture their lives after their release showing Shane and Sarah’s marriage, Josh becoming a father, and the group’s pursuit of advocacy. By taking the film a step further, it answers the "what happened?" after their release and gives closure to the tumultuous part of their lives but instills the hope and power the hikers have from bouncing back from it.

The film has its slow moments and the reenactments feel rushed and disconnected from the film at times, but overall it’s a solid documentary. There’s no question that the hikers and their families are closer because of this traumatic period in their lives. For all involved, they answered the question of: how far would you go to save a loved one? 

Rating: B

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.