Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // March 31st, 2010
How far would you travel to heal someone you love?
At two-years-old, young Rowan Isaacson was diagnosed with autism. It was then that his parents, writer Rupert Isaacson and professor Kristen Neff, watched their beautiful little boy slowly withdraw from the world. Soon, their lives became wrapped around Rowan, his tantrums, and his obsessions; their life was no longer their own. One day when Rowan was about four, he ran off in a tantrum to his neighbor's house. When Rupert found his son, Rowan had found the stables and was hanging out with the old mare; calm, talkative, and downright normal. Rowan had a heightened connection with animals, and had as much a calming effect on them as they did on him. A light went off in Rupert's head: maybe keeping the boy around horses could be therapeutic. Coincidentally, before Rupert was an anthropology author, he trained horses for a living, so he began working with Rowan and his equine friends. Soon, he made a very strange connection between the horses and the shamanistic religions of the aboriginal people he writes about. It turns out that the original horse trainers in Mongolia also have one of the world's strongest shaman traditions. Then, Rupert takes things really far.
After convincing his wife that it's somehow a good idea, he takes his family on a ridiculous journey to Mongolia. They get on horseback and ride to the wilds of the northern border, where they meet the reindeer herders, a nomadic people who hold the oldest shamanistic tradition in the world. There, they hope for a miracle from the shaman, that he'll somehow be able to cure Rowan of his autism. While it seems like a pretty big stretch to travel thousands of miles with an autistic four-year-old, Rupert and Kristen decide to gamble everything to help their only son. It's an extraordinary adventure through lands westerners rarely see, but The Horse Boy is unfortunately not an extraordinary film. Directed by first-timer Michael Orion Scott, a friend of the family, the film is a standard travel documentary that combines footage of the family before and during their journey with interviews of experts in the field of autism.
These interviews are the most valuable part of The Horse Boy. The experts discuss the history and uncertainty of the field, how the broad range of diagnosis often makes treatment a shot in the dark, and the difficulty of raising an autistic child. As a primer on autism, the interviews are great. The trouble is in the overall feeling of the documentary, which is more about the parents than about Rowan. Both parents acknowledge to the camera that sometimes they feel that this journey has more to do with them and their egos. Parts of the journey are extremely traumatic for Rowan and the chance of scarring him is great. Yet they soldier on, even as the child is scared and begging to go home, hoping for a shot at a miracle. As much as they clearly love their son, and as much as they see some shocking success, they don't have Rowan's best interests at heart. The film reeks of narcissism, but it's not all bad. There is an interesting story in here, some beautiful footage, and a lot to learn about autism. But the parents, especially the father, make the whole thing feel too much like a vanity project.
Zeitgeist Films continues their noble tradition of high-quality, low profile releases with their DVD of The Horse Boy. The anamorphic transfer looks nearly perfect, with accurate colors and clean black levels. The Mongolian landscape looks beautiful; there is nothing to complain about here at all. The sound is fine, but uneventful. There's very little music and the ambient sound is fairly quiet, but the dialog is all perfectly clear. For extras, we have about twenty minutes of extra footage of the family and a series of additional interviews with the autism experts featured in the film.
I wish the film was more about Rowan and less about his parents, but it's
still a quality film with a good message of healing. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated