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CCFF 2016 – Life, Animated & Under the Shadow

May 23, 2016



At first glance, the two movies that I viewed on Day 3 of the Chicago Critics Film Festival couldn’t be any more different. After all, “Life, Animated” is an American documentary that introduces viewers to an autistic young man who learned how to communicate by watching Disney animated features and “Under the Shadow” is an Iranian horror film focusing on a mother and daughter who encounter a mysterious evil in their home amid the backdrop of war-torn Iran in the 1980s. But in both movies, we see parents who would do anything to protect their child – one just happens to be based on real people, while the other is so nerve-racking that it elicits real responses from its viewers. Both of them were my favorites from the festival….



Yes, I cried while watching this heartbreaking-yet-inspired doc about 23 year-old Owen Suskind, a gentle and sensitive soul who has autism. The documentary covers how his supportive and loving parents watched as their bright and active 3 year-old verbally and cognitively shut down and how they soon learned that the only thing Owen responded to were the Disney animated features that he would endlessly consume. There are moments of joy and sadness here, as one would expect, but to see how optimistic Owen is now is inspiring. Obviously this isn’t a movie that has answers for parents whose child has autism, but watching Owen’s parents and his older brother do whatever they can to help and guide him, should be quite relatable. It also helps that the movie shows how Owen and his peers can be functional on their own with the right help. This is the first documentary that I’ve seen that gives viewers an understanding of autism from the perspective of the autistic. Told with creative child-like animation sequences that resemble Owen’s inner thoughts and his perception of the world, “Life, Animated” remind us of the power of the movies and offer a viewer a greater appreciation and respect for those families who live with autism.

RATING: ***1/2



For a movie that will be described as “that Iranian horror film that’s kind of like “The Babadook”, there’s a lot more going on in writer/director Babak Anvari’s feature-length debut than just that. But whatever gets people to see this fascinating psychological thriller that also happens to have some potent social commentary. This story takes place in the late 80s, during the Iran-Iraq war, where Shideh (Narges Rashid) a struggling mother is trying to make sense of a mysterious evil that is haunting her and her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), in their apartment complex, where the threat of bombing looms. As the child becomes ill and nightmares fueled by anxiety and insecurity increase for her mother, Anvari builds a palpable sense of frenzy, while acutely portraying how cruelly women are treated in Iran. But if it wasn’t for the tremendous performance from Rashidi, the legitimate scares and supernatural element that Anvari injects wouldn’t have been convincing. I look forward to more work from her and the director. This is a movie that is ripe for discussion long after viewing.

RATING: ****


Look for “Life, Animated” to hit theaters this summer, on July 1st. “Under the Shadow” has already struck a deal with Netflix and apparently is also getting a British remake as well. Look for it to stream on Netflix sometime this year.




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