PG. Some movies deserve to be PG. This is one of them. Sorry I can't be more pithy.
DIRECTOR: Roger Ross Williams
I am genuinely mad at myself for not reviewing this earlier. This movie was such an emotional experience and I would have loved to write about this movie still riding those highs and lows. But, of course, I chose to make priorities and real life took precedence. I applied to grad school and had to write something else. I had my work evaluation today. Stuff happens.
I've gotten really close to crying at movies. Every year, the end of It's a Wonderful Life. The end of Scrooged. Probably a handful of other Capras or Christmas movies. This is the first time a tear rolled down my big, manly, and rugged face. Kids have ruined me, guys. While the premise seems a little too chincy and manipulative for me, I can't deny that the movie isn't effective. The premise, if you don't know, is that an autistic boy learns to communicate with his parents through the use of Disney films. (Geez, my heart just sunk into my chest writing that sentence. Maybe I will achieve some emotional vulnerability while writing this. Nevermind. The Mission: Impossible theme just came over Pandora. I'm good.) I don't love that this is a movie kissing Disney's butt and this coming from a guy who has learned to genuinely appreciate the artistry that Disney puts into their features. But it's a documentary and if this is all true, I have to accept that they're going to slobber all over Disney a bit to make this happen.
The format of this movie is quite clever. The story lets you know that Owen is going to be okay. Obviously, autism is something that never goes away, but the film starts with a functional Owen dealing with graduation with smiles across his face. As a vulnerable schlub, I kind of needed this. I've been Dear Zachary'ed enough in my lifetime to have to go through that again. (Another emotional documentary, but that one left me mad at the world. No tears, just jaw fully dropped.) The movie then jumps between two time periods, the time of Owen's regression into autism and back to present day Owen dealing with the real world. The footage of young Owen, very cleverly, is done through a very stylized form of animation. The movie is pretty powerful just through content, but the addition of animation really solidifies the tone as something special. I've watched far too many documentaries simply hold the camera on an object that is meant to capture the emotional spirit of the moment and it never really works. That's not true. It works sometimes, but it seems lazy for a movie like this. When the movie flashes to animation with Owen's narrative playing throughout, I never get pulled out. The two parallel stories are more playful and complimentary.
This movie works as a whole. On rare occasion, I become a spectator to a person's life. I hate sports, so I need to get that side of me out somehow. There were times I was yelling at the screen and there were times I wanted to clap. Williams understands the struggle of the parents, having to lose their two year old son, then having to replace him with one that is noncommunicative. As crass as it sounds, it would be easy to assume that the concept sells itself. But the documentary doesn't take the easy route necessarily. It traps the small moments perfectly. It doesn't badger or try to force the audience to an uncomfortable place, but the concept that these parents would be willing to try anything simply for a glimmer is sold very clearly. As much as this is a movie about Owen's successes, it is about parents and the sacrifices that must be made. I know it sounds like I'm talking down to all the kids out there or all those without children yet, but the dad part of me cries every time I think about it. It forces me to count my blessings and I thank the movie for that.
I want to talk about individual moments, but I also don't want to cheapen the experience for you. It was probably bad enough that I showed my film class the trailer and discuss important bits. I'm a human being, okay? I need to talk to someone about these things.
I have to admit that this is not the most important documentary this Academy Awards season, but it is the one that spoke to me. Does that make me a bad person? No, it just makes me a person. If it won, I'd be happy. But I also know that the other documentaries in the category need to be seen and this one is a bit of an emotional bombshell.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.