At the age of three Owen Suskind’s speech began to deteriorate. The once chatty kid started to detach from the outside world and retreat into a silent one all his own. Suskind was diagnosed as autistic. His parents were shocked, but the family adapted to Suskind’s new normal, accepting that the son they knew would probably never return. Yet one day he did, led back to them by, of all things, Disney cartoons.
Roger Ross Williams’ extremely moving documentary explains how a fixation with Disney animation taught Suskind not only to talk again but also to read and how to make sense of the world. The film tells two stories. One is of the now adult Suskind, who still has significant emotional and learning difficulties but has become independent enough that he’s preparing to live on his own. The other is the story of Suskind’s family and how they gently, lovingly coaxed Suskind back to them. When, after a year of silence, he began repeating a line of dialogue from The Little Mermaid, then compared his older brother to Peter Pan, his parents saw that something in the cartoons was getting through to him, so they showed him as many as they could. Incrementally, Suskind himself became more animated.
It’s a remarkable story very well told. The film is based on the book by Suskind’s father Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and there’s a clear-eyed journalistic tone to it. As interviewees, the Suskinds are all eloquent and detailed, able to vividly describe scenes from decades ago. Owen’s childhood is brought to life in old home movies and charming animation that gets more colourful as his world gets richer.
As much as it’s an account of how Disney helped bring Suskind back to his family, it’s much more about how hard that family worked to help him find his way and how much they loved him at every stage. You might call it a corny, Disney-esque cliché, but it’s really about how if someone believes in you, you can do incredible things.