The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

Why we’re ‘Homesick for Another World’

Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World” is a book about pimples and obesity. It’s a book about women who wear too much makeup and men who wear women’s blazers.

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“Homesick for Another World”
By Ottessa Moshfegh
294 pp. Penguin Press. $26.
2017.

Each of the characters within this collection of 14 short stories perform little sins that show their inner ugliness. Sometimes it’s changing the answers to all their students’ state tests so that the students could pass their exams (“Bettering Myself”). At other times, it’s not calling their mothers (“Nothing Ever Happens Here”), staying with absent and paranoid boyfriends (“The Weirdos”), lusting after the young girl next door (“An Honest Woman”), not calling an ambulance when a pregnant woman starts bleeding inside their homes (“Slumming”), or going to a remote family cabin to smoke weed and escape an almost-due pregnant wife (“A Dark and Winding Road”).

Written in first person, these uncomfortable vignettes portray the minds of sinners shrouded within protective bubbles of arrogance and self-entitlement. A man with unemployment benefits collects cash from an old and dying uncle (“Malibu”). A recent widow tries to vengefully cheat on his dead wife after almost 30 years of marriage (“The Beach Boy”).

These stories are about loneliness and the search for human connection; however, more often than not, this quest leads us to lazy eyes and clumps of white deodorant under armpits. Moshfegh’s characters reek of humanity: the moist, stank of original sin. It’s a stench we’re painfully familiar with and why we’re homesick for another world.

‘The Grownup’: Gillian Flynn’s Rubin vase

You know that optical illusion where you swear you see a vase but your friend keenly sees two faces. That’s the kind of story Gillian Flynn’s “The Grownup” is.

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“The Grownup”
By Gillian Flynn
62 pp. Crown Publishers. $9.99 US.
2014.

Originally published as part of George R. R. Martin’s “Rogues” anthology under the name “What Do You Do?,” “The Grownup” is like the Rubin vase exercise, holding two images in the same frame.

The main character is an wannabe writer who is a voracious reader. She catalogs great lines for her memoir and begins with this one: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”

Written in first person, “The Grownup” is a classic story about an unreliable narrator. We don’t ever find out her name, but if we believe the narrator, she grew up conning people out of their money, telling them stories that they wanted to hear. Now she’s a fake aura reader who also gives hand jobs for money at this joint called Spiritual Palms.

This becomes problematic when she meets Susan Burke, a wealthy client whose family moves into Carterhook Manor, an 1893 Victorian mansion. Susan thinks the house is haunted and our heroine would love the extra cash; the latter, however, isn’t as easy as it seems.

At 62 pages, “The Grownup” is a slim novella. Yet within those 62 pages, Gillian Flynn (author of book-turned-movie “Gone Girl”) skillfully maneuvers the twists and turns she’s so well known for.

While “The Grownup” is a quick read, it’ll have your second guessing what you believe.

Why you should be binge-watching ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

Have you ever danced when no one’s watching? Really danced. You know, the kind of dancing where you’re blasting bad punk rock songs that somehow ends up in jumping on your bed doing ridiculous air guitar solos?

That’s what it kind of feels like binge-watching Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s TV musical rom-com “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” It’s heroine Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is the kind of bad-ass that could give Emma Stone a run for her money in “Easy A” – the kind of fearless and impulsive heroine who quits her lucrative job at a big New York City law firm to move to middle-of-nowhere So-Cal to chase after an ex-boyfriend (Vincent Rodriguez III) that she had a brief two-month summer fling with at summer camp when she was 16.

Crazy and stupid? Yes. But on some level, it’s also absurdly amusing to watch. I mean, who hasn’t imagined that prince charming whose kiss wakes you up from your nightmares, that prince who rescues you from imprisonment, that prince who marries you out of poverty and generally makes your life more pleasant? And here’s a gal who’s taking charge of her life and actively trying to find him.

While we know real life doesn’t work this way and that a guy can’t fix our anxieties and depression, Bunch plays out these impossible fairy-tale fantasies — these fantasies that tells us that we can actually make it after quitting that miserable $95,000 job and moving to an island to scoop ice cream. That fantasy that we can be happy somehow and that we don’t have to medicate with pills or alcohol and that all your problems could magically disappear. To add to the fantastical and improbable, the cast at “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” occasionally break into original songs, singing about sexy French depressions, heavy boobs and urinary tract infections.

At times, the lyrics to the music sounds like the whimsical type of things a child would make up when narrating her whole life in song — not that that’s a bad thing. The “I have friends” song is extremely catchy and filled with cheerful optimism and self-denial.

At other times, the musical numbers parodies things we’re familiar with. It’s opening number “West Covina” (and its reprises) is a homage to those big, sweeping, Broadway musicals numbers where a character sings about those life-changing moments. In another number, a troupe of plaintiffs sing “Can you hear a trickling sound?” to the tune of “Les Miserables'” protest anthem “Do you hear the people sing?”

The music’s inspiration is wide and eclectic, though. The actors give a nod to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and old Hollywood in a song about settling for less.

A bartender (Fontana) plays a piano solo at an empty bar on Thanksgiving to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” a one-man boy band (Rodriguez) sings about kissing childhood dramas goodbye, and a pair of Jewish American Princesses perform a rap battle.

Even when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” seems like it’s following fairy-tale conventions, it’s constantly breaking them. The show’s heroine (Bloom) sings about being the villain rather than the fairy-tale princess and a bird abruptly flies away when Bloom attempts to sing to it.

What’s more is that Bunch isn’t some silly, damsel in distress; she’s a smart, resourceful and successful lawyer with degrees at both Harvard and Yale. Her prince also isn’t a white John Smith who kidnaps Pocahontas; the leading man’s a really nice Filipino bro named Josh Chan with white sidekicks like White Josh (David Hull) and Greg Serrano (Fontana).

And while the show’s girl-chases-after-guy plot seems to throw feminism out the window, Bloom and McKenna also insert scenes girls wish would really happen in real life. A musical number showing a guy seeing the ritual a girl goes through when preparing to go on a date with him ends with the guy calling up all his past hookups and apologizing for taking how he took how they looked for granted.

Bloom and McKenna’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a guilty pleasure and binge-watching all 18 episodes of its first season feels eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food all by yourself, but even so, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a refreshing show with substance — featuring a diverse and multiracial cast; witty, self-deprecating commentary; and encouraging the healthy kind of belly laughs that almost tastes as good as gooey marshmallow and caramel swirls with fudge fish.

The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna. The show’s first season is available on Netflix.