By Kit Gallagher
I recently had the pleasure of attending a screening of the new feature-length documentary Life, Animated. The film is based on Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind’s bestselling book about his family’s journey with his son Owen’s autism. The event, held at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, was part of Harvard’s week-long professional-education program, Universal Design for Learning: Leading Inclusive Education for All Students. Program co-chairs David Rose of CAST and Tom Hehir of Harvard introduced the film, and Suskind himself joined them for discussion with the audience afterwards.
I know I am not alone in finding the movie absolutely delightful, moving, powerful—the audience at Sundance, where the film took home the Special Jury Prize and Best Director Award, reportedly gave a ten-minute long standing ovation. A quick Google search reveals a seemingly endless cascade of praise from nearly every angle—from big-wig film critics to special needs parenting blogs to casual moviegoers.
What is it about this movie that strikes such a nerve? Certainly the film’s stunning direction by Roger Ross Williams, who in 2010 became the first African American director to win an Oscar for Documentary Shorts, plays a large role. Owen Suskind himself is also compelling. He is poignantly self-reflective, charming, and incredibly engaging. More than any particular reason, there are multiple qualities and factors that explain the film’s success and contribute to its across-the-board accessibility and appeal. Sound familiar? Yup, you guessed it: UDL comes alive in Life, Animated.
The movie excels at providing viewers with multiple means of representation, such as the differing perspectives of narration, accessible Disney clips and songs, the animation set to Owen’s “Sidekicks” story, the use of old home video footage and stills of family photos, and multiple camera angles and auditory cues. Life, Animated offers a remarkable variety of opportunity to understand its story, which why it speaks so powerfully to so many different types of viewers.
The film also reveals how important is it to never give up on struggling learners, how they can learn and learn to express themselves in ways previously thought impossible. In Owen’s story, he went several years without talking. Watching Disney films and learning all their lines gave him a vocabulary to express what he was feeling. He learned hundreds of lines of dialogue and memorized as many scenes. Through Disney fantasies, he could learn to understand the larger world that had been foreign to him. He learned to communicate and to relate to others through an unlikely set of means.
In his remarks after the screening, David Rose spoke to the point of variability—different types of viewers, of learners, of individuals—noting how we all exist somewhere on the “spectrum.” Life, Animated provides a wonderful example in showing us how when something is designed with such intentional inclusivity, the outcome is that much more enjoyable for all.