Stranger things: The Horse Boy reviewed

I review The Horse Boy, a documentary that plays on our emotions and our desire for spiritual healing, for The Stranger: my first review for Seattle’s alternative alternative weekly. As you might guess from that introduction, I have some problems with the film.

Father, son, horse
Father, son, horse

The Horse Boy intelligently and sympathetically addresses the reality of autism and how little we actually understand the condition, and there’s no doubting that Rowan’s parents have the best intentions. But the line between documentation and exploitation gets awfully blurred as we realize that part of this intimate family adventure is an intrusive camera crew in Rowan’s face. It’s an educational experience for the audience, but is it healthy for an autistic child ripped from the comfort of his routine?

Read the complete review here.

Postscript: I appreciate the spotlight the film throws on autism, a word that gets tossed around a lot with any real understanding of of the condition, and perhaps the film’s greatest contribution is footage of Rowan in one of his unreachable tantrums, a kind of fit that comes without any obvious external cause and seems to drive itself until its burned out. But I’m also suspicious of other parts of the film that idealizes the autistic child as a sort of angel savant, an innocent with some spiritual connection to a world we can’t see or understand the way he does. It plays into a stereotype that I believe is as dangerous as any involving the mentally challenged. “Rowan’s autism made me a better father,” proclaims Rupert, as if the affliction was there for his own personal growth. The challenge is not to elevate nor dismiss Rowan based on his autism, but to discover the person beyond the affliction while never forgetting that it is part of him, a part that needs to be understood and appreciated for what it brings to him as a person, but also to some extent must be overcome to for him to be a self-sufficient person in the world.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

4 thoughts on “Stranger things: The Horse Boy reviewed”

  1. although i appreciate your review and perspective, unless you’ve known of an autistic child or worked with one, then it would be easy to assume rowan may have been exploited or that rupert views his son as a personal growth opportunity. most parents under such circumstances would literally go to the ends of the earth to help their child. i’ve worked with such parents and children. it’s a pity the spiritual aspects of the film will be lost on many in such a scientific material world that we live in. the implication is the issacsons visit more often that not globally marginalized people: people marginalized exactly because they have not swallowed whole the scientifc materialistic view of life. we ought not be either romantic or naive but open to the ideas that the high tech western nations have much to offer people under such circumstances.

  2. ps. i meant to phrase that last comment: the high tech western nations have very little to offer people under such circumstances. symptom management at best.

  3. I agree. I didn’t post it because I thought it would be obvious from my comments, but I have known autistic children and adults. When I was a child, my father was the head of the autistic foundation for the city and a good friend of the family was a foster mother to an autistic child (now an autistic adult). She was a regular part of our family events and, for a time, just a part of the extended family. I don’t question the motivations of this family or sacrifices they are willing to make to help their son. What I question is how putting an autistic boy under the scrutiny of a video camera and a small crew while on a so-called personal journey to Mongolia is serving the boy’s best interest.

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