At last, the Nashville theater premiere of “The Horse Boy” occurs Tuesday, Sept. 28, 6:30, Sarratt Cinema at Vanderbilt University. John Shouse and I will be on a panel following to discuss the impact of autism on families. The initial debut was cancelled twice due to Nashville’s traumatic spring weather events. My review, which was initially published here, April 21, follows below.
A British human rights journalist and horse trainer, his American wife–a university professor of psychology–and their son with autism “do something crazy.” They travel across the world and ride horseback across Mongolia seeking a shamanic healing….Fodder for a work of fiction. Only, it is the true story of a central Texas family.
The story of Rupert Isaacson, Kristen Neff and their son, Rowan, has been circling the greater autism internet ethers for nearly three years, having received considerable press–first for the book, The Horse Boy, then the movie. The later was considered for last year’s, Nashville Film Festival before it was pulled from consideration due to being temporarily considered by a major film production house. At that time, I was working as a volunteer liaison between the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee and the film festival regarding the film possibly showing here. The festival eventually brought in, instead, Autistic-Like. The Festival graciously granted ASMT an option of eschewing any film if we felt it was too “out there.” And, “The Horse Boy,” to me, seemed a candidate for “out there.” But, I knew to remain open and that every message about autism means another opportunity for greater public awareness.
What concerned me about the film is what I judged as the far-fetched premise of taking a child “far and away” (the original book title) to receive shamanic cleansing by tribal people. While I wanted to remain open to the premise, in 13 years, as any parent on the autism journey, I’ve seen my share of magical-miracle cures ranging from shadow therapy, hugging therapy, ionic foot baths to gummy bear vitamins. Just to name a few. Seriously. I thought I’d seen it all. (While most of these may prove beneficial to some children, generally I don’t believe in magic-pill cures for the brain-based highly enigmatic and complex disorder.)
I make no bones on my blog and elsewhere that I’m about Acceptance. The beautiful thing about “The Horse Boy,” in all it’s oddity of plot, is, too, about Acceptance. It is a tale of an extraordinary journey of two deeply, loving, tremendously patient parents desperate to help their son. It is a far-flung venture to seek a shift. Change does happen, but not only to Rowan but to the hearts of his special parents.
From the start, a handsome, muscular, long-hippie-haired Isaacson, whose British accent narrates the film, states his family had tried everything to help their son’s “inconsolable tantrums,” his “emotional and physical incontinence” and his social isolation and the rest of his severe case of autism. The list includes all things Western; behavioral therapies, “diets, pills, creams.”
At the eve of five years of age, Rowan’s tantrums were worsening. Then, one day, Rowan ran from his father into a neighbor’s yard and approached a large mare. While Isaacson was a former horse trainer, he had purposely not introduced his son to horses because of Rowan’s tantrums. But around and during and after riding the horse, Rowan became still and peaceful and previously un-forthcoming language erratically spewed.
Resourceful and highly creative, Isaacson brainstormed and researched cultures that combined healing with horses. He had been exposed in his days as a documentary journalist to indigenous tribes that practiced shamanism. His search led him to the outer reaches of Mongolia, where the horse was first domesticated and tribes of shamans worked with the large animals.
The family returned cleansed from their month long adventure, which viewers travel with them–across ruggedly picturesque and heart-breaking-ly beautiful mountainous terrain beneath skies stretching into forever. And, watching “The Horse Boy,” I, too, felt a palpable sense of release. Tears came to the surface several times for me as I watched Rowan struggle, his parent’s struggle….At the immensity of the small family’s love and the incredible emotional investment in this unknown journey of faith.
In the end, the family returns admitting they did not find a cure for autism, but Rowan did experience a considerable shift with some crucial behavior and bodily functioning issues. Likewise, his parents also experienced a fundamental shift.
At their first introduction, the addition of talking heads interspersed in the documentary seemed awkward. Four keen experts of autism, including Temple Grandin, Simon Baron-Cohen, and in my opinion, the star expert–anthropologist and father Richard Grinker (author of Unstrange Minds), inject their perspective about autism throughout the film. But, instead of being an oddity, in the end, their testimony enhances the filmmaker’s message.
Their take home message is a dream for those of us living with this disorder who want the world to understand our children and older loved ones–and, in understanding them, to recognize their important contributions and place in our world. I consider myself a veteran on this journey. Yet, I was surprised by the insight I gained from all of those highlighted in this film.
The journey that this small Texas family took is odd, wild and mystical. They return unable to peg what exactly happened and why or what worked. But they know that they came back with a gift of truly appreciating their son for his differences. It is a beautiful theme woven in to this intense film.
Today, the couple run a therapeutic horseback program in central Texas called The Horse Boy Foundation.
*At the suggestion of ITVS coordinator, Allison Inman, I initially placed a “spoiler alert” at the start of this post. I cannot say enough good things about this movie. But, I also was initially hesitant about the film and know well in the Bible Belt South as well in the autism community culture where we are bombarded with cure du jour, viewers might easily dismiss this film because of the plot–traveling to a foreign country, equine therapy and shamanism. I wanted to allay any fears that this movie fulfilled any of those stereotypes or would be overly disturbing to anyone holding such concerns. I later removed this alert when feedback from several readers assured me I didn’t “spoil” anything and gave readers further reason to see this film.