How Disney films animated inner life of autistic Jewish boy

Children’s films — especially those of the animated variety — typically try to highlight the moral of the story. But very few children have embraced those lessons as deeply as Owen Suskind.

Now in his mid-20s, Owen seemed to be a normal toddler until he suddenly stopped speaking at age 3. His parents, Ron and Cornelia, tried every strategy and tactic to treat Owen’s autism, but he remained uncommunicative and seemingly unreachable.

In the  beautifully crafted and irresistibly touching documentary “Life, Animated,” Ron says that he was stunned one day to hear Owen repeat a snippet of dialogue while watching an animated Disney movie.

It took a few years, however, to figure out that Owen was using the characters, behavioral cues and ethical directives of Disney films to make sense of and deal with his own experiences. Owen eventually regained the ability to speak and interact with other people — thanks not only to Disney movies but also to the dedication of his mom and various tutors.

Owen Suskind is the subject of “Life, Animated.”

The documentary, which will open July 15 in several Bay Area theaters, was adapted from Ron Suskind’s 2014 book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism.” Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author who has written books on the last two presidential administrations and issues related to the United States’ use of power.

As for the film, it isn’t a stretch to predict that it will be nominated for an Academy Award for documentary feature.

Unexpectedly, when Ron and Cornelia sat down for an interview in May, before the screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the conversation focused on Owen’s bar mitzvah.

“When he was about 11,” Cornelia recalled, “his therapist gave me a book, which no one’s ever heard of, called ‘Autism and the God Connection.’ It talks about how so many, many of these kids operate on a different emotional plane.”

“He always had been spiritual,” Ron added. “In some ways, he preserved sort of a notion of God being there within reach that kids have, but even as he grew in sophistication he didn’t give that up.”

Ron, who is Jewish, and Cornelia, who is Catholic, belonged to a Reconstructionist temple in Bethesda, Maryland, when Owen was growing up.

“The question was how would we get him up to the bimah and have him do what’s needed,” Ron remembered. “First, we had a problem where we didn’t know what movies to go to, because he really didn’t have much of a taste for ‘The Prince of Egypt.’ It just didn’t work for him.”

So Ron pointed Owen to “An American Tale: Fievel Goes West.”

“Basically, it’s Eastern European Jews as mice,” Ron said.

In prepping for his bar mitzvah, Owen embraced the part of his parashah that discussed the commandments a person should follow. “He’s very rule-oriented,” Cornelia explained.

Speaking in front of the congregation, Owen honed in one rule in particular: Never put a block in front of a blind person.

“He talked about that in his speech, the notion of ‘special,’ and he broadened it,” Ron said. “He had the designation of ‘he’s a special kid,’ [but] he said, ‘I think God wants us to see everyone as special.’ ”

Director Roger Ross Williams said the film included a poignant flashback scene from Owen’s bar mitzvah before it was removed as one of the final cuts.

In the film, Owen Suskind discerns and delineates the positive themes of Disney films for other autistic children and young adults. The documentary also recounts Owen’s long journey, following him from his childhood to his current situation of living independently (with support) in a residential community.

“You can almost feel his desire — I think it’s deep in all of us — to arrive at a place of faith, of constancy, of a sense of a universe that is coherent, and a place of love and possibility,” Ron Suskind said.

“He was searching for that on his own. He was often using the best of Disney to help support that architecture, which actually is a pretty good pick, if you think about it.”

“Life, Animated” opens July 15 at Bay Area theaters (Rated PG, 91 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.