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.
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?
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.