When we meet the Isaacsons, they are a family at the end of their rope. The limits of their patience have been battered by son Rowan's autism, they've exhausted every treatment offered by Western medicine and are still left with a child who at the age of four is not potty trained, can barely speak and is almost constantly in a state of violent tantrum. Inspired by the nearly miraculous effect training with horses has on Rowan, they pack up for Mongolia to pursue shamanic healing rituals offered in far-flung provinces by reindeer herders.
Michel O. Scott's directorial debut The Horse Boy (which screened at film festivals under the name Over the Hills and Far Away) tries very hard to keep the focus on Rowan's incremental progress. But the thrill-seeking New Age parents, father Rupert, an Austin-based journalist, and mother Kristin, a professor of psychology, naturally draw more attention to themselves by virtue of being able to articulate the enormous guilt and frustration around their experiences parenting a severely Autistic child. And while their suffering is nearly palpable, they're unable to explain why they think this expedition is going to make a bit of difference.
While we see the disappointment and exasperation on the Isaacsons' weary faces, we never see how this has impacted their relationships with each other or extended family or their careers. As such, the spectacle of a wealthy, attractive, outdoorsy couple being physically and psychologically tormented by Mongolian shamans (the rituals the child endures are far less harrowing) is somewhat mockable. Particularly when the couple complains loudly that Mongolia is not as exotic as they'd hoped or when Rupert congratulates Kristin on having 'such a great sense of humor' when she is informed that the spirit of her schizophrenic grandmother is haunting her child's soul and as a result she must wash her vagina as part of the ritual. It's about this time one begins to hope the descendants of Genghis Khan will make an appearance. The douching ritual, and so many other TMI moments in this story, are left onscreen--though thankfully with some dignified pixelation.
Woven into the Isaacsons' story is a
collection of talking head interviews with scientists and Autism
researchers who elaborate on the confusion that surrounds the disorder.
The film's editor Rita K. Sanders has an excellent flair for conveying
the chaos within the world of Autism--despite the fact millions of
people are considered to be somewhere on the Autism spectrum, there are
no universally agreed upon causes, symptoms or diagnostic methods. It's
through these talking heads we gain a better understanding for why pursuing
costly, experimental treatments (that can have many bizarre side
effects) can feel like a never ending crap shoot for parents. The
reality is that parents feel cruel for trying and damned for not
trying. Early on, the Isaacsons talk about the host of
creams, diets, exercise regiments and a morning cocktail of hardcore
anti-viral drugs--all with intermittent improvements.
The Horse Boy is extremely effective as a travelogue. The inner steppes of Mongolia and its natural wildlife (reindeer, it turns out, look nothing like their Christmas jingle depictions!) have rarely been captured by western documentary crews. This vast, majestic beauty does not escape Scott's lens.
Still, there is something missing from Horse Boy as a document of a family driven to the brink and enduring a harrowing experiment. It goes unmentioned that the trip is financed through a million dollar advance on a book deal secured by Mr. Isaacson. This might help explain why Mrs. Isaacson is rarely invited to contribute more than blithe agreements with anything her husband says and why he is positioned as an authority on shamanic rituals and constantly congratulated for discovering the therapeutic benefits of Rowan's horse training. And even though Jenny McCartney, the dating game show hostess that became an icon of superficiality in the 1990's pop culture, has been able to re-invent herself as a poster mom for families dealing with Autism, one can imagine most families still feel like it's them against the world as they try to navigate their situation.
But this lack of disclosure infuses Horse Boy with undeniable measure of both smugness and self-consciousness. The Isaacsons' (especially Rupert, who provides the voiceover narration for the film) need to be depicted as endlessly patient saints who can drop everything and travel to Mongolia, not because of their wealth or need for adventure and attention, but because they just care so much about their beleaguered son is going to be a tough one for average parents of Autistic children to identify with and even less appealing to those not impacted by the disease.
RIYL: Hear and Now, Sound and Fury, Reel Paradise.
The Horse Boy is playing in select cities. In Portland at the Hollywood Theatre.