(The Horse Boy was one of four films screened on Poterero Avenue on the evenings of September 23rd and 24th. Reviews of the other three films will be published here soon.)
The Horse Boy is a ninety-three minute documentary by Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Michel O. Scott which unfortunately feels much longer. Its story is an intriguing one, ostensibly brimming with love and hope. The Horse Boy is produced and narrated by the film's star, Austin journalist, writer and father, Rupert Isaacson, and the tale is based on his book, “The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son.” The book and now film chronicle Isaacson's journey to Mongolia with his wife and young autistic son Rowan in the effort to find shamans who, the father hopes, may heal him.
The genesis of the trip was the son's usually dyspeptic demeanor, punctuated by seemingly endless tantrums, one day becoming singularly serene whenever he rode a neighbor's horse named Betsy. Whenever the child rode atop Betsy, he seemed remarkably peaceful. Isaacson considered this and coupled his own experience with the Bushmen of Africa, related in his 2004 book, “The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Isaacson's research pointed to the Mongolians as having the longest history of using horses, so he coupled the knowledge he gained from his sojourn to see the Bushmen with the Mongolian shamans who, like the Bushmen, spiritually healed those addled by disease. Isaacson convinced his comparatively skeptical wife to take the journey to Mongolia to see the shamans based on these points. The documentary unfortunately does not address why this seemingly radical alternative to the western medication the Isaacsons use on a daily basis must be taken. The correlation between the African Bushmen and the Mongolian shamans remains tenuous. Could, for instance, the child have been escorted to an American Indian tribal medicine man closer to the Isaacsons' home of Austin? Rowan's reaction to the horse, which spurred Isaacson to take this action, may be explainable as simply a child's innate affection for the animal, and for something new. If Rowan's reaction is indeed quite significant, it would be helpful for the documentary to more greatly illuminate, on autism in general and Rowan's case in particular.
The film makes no clear comparisons between Rowan and other autistic children. Autism itself is very briefly covered, with gradations momentarily discussed, but Rowan's case is never directly scientifically scrutinized in relation to other cases of autism. The Horse Boy uses a multi-person panel of apparent experts in the field of autism including Austin psychotherapist Dale Rudin to expound various thoughts and postulations concerning the disease. The soundbites from the rotating doctors often contradict one another. The specifics of autism as a disease, even in relation to Rowan himself, are left frustratingly muddled. This is not entirely unreasonable unto itself yet the myriad comments are often vague or cliché-ridden. Those with a genuine interest in autism, such as beleaguered parents with autistic children of their own, will probably be rather disappointed by The Horse Boy's regrettably shallow pseudo-intellectualism.
The Horse Boy, as a documentary, sadly lacks much in the way of documentation—aside from the trip the Isaacsons take, it documents little. Evidence, examples, basic factual support are all conspicuously missing. This damages the cinematic missive; while it is obvious Rowan has been diagnosed as autistic, what does this truly entail? The lack of answers leaves The Horse Boy appearing woefully incondite at times. The film, through the patriarchal Isaacson, does relate that Rowan suffers from interminable and inconsolable tantrums, an inability to relate to or play with other children, and severe bowel incontinence. (The documentary pushes the audience's patience and embarrassment with at least one too many sequence detailing the latter symptom.) One overwhelming problem with the film, however, is that Rowan's autism is displayed in disparate contexts. In one scene, Isaacson expresses wonderment and happiness when his son throws a tantrum apparently because he was being separated from the shamans. Isaacson notes that this is a good sign; he believed his son would probably throw a tantrum when he was placed near the shamans. Does this comport with average autistic children? Are their symptoms chiefly brought about by emotional reactions?
This gleeful shedding of concrete, rational science as part of the potential equation extends to the Isaacsons readily accepting the shamans' belief, upon examining the family, that a “dark spirit” entered the womb of Isaacson's wife, Kristin Neff. Neff, with an earned Ph.D. in Human Development from Berkeley, rarely receives the focus of The Horse Boy; the picture either occludes or limits all other voices but Isaacson's own. Neff does briefly relate that her deceased, mentally unstable grandmother, the “dark spirit” of whom the shamans speak, suffered from manic depression and this “spirit”/genetic history has directly led to her son's autism. Rowan's parents subject themselves to ritualistic whippings by the shamans, compelled to not scream lest the ceremony be for naught. While the shamans' rituals are displayed visually for the film, the reasoning behind them are left vague. Likewise, Isaacson endeavors to lunge at various other possibilities of healing, including recuperative springs and visiting the “Reindeer People” of Mongolia. Isaacson's open faith may or may not be laudatory, but these developments in the documentary's narrative make the picture rather arduous with only the vistas of beautiful, wondrously open and commodious Mongolian terrain providing steady relief.
Almost humorously, or simply embarrassingly, Isaacson is depicted as hopelessly naïve in his own inexperienced impression of Mongolia, and especially of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a desolate, chalky city packed with impoverished slums. After landing in the benighted city, Isaacson confesses that this reality is not what he was remotely expecting in his apparent fantasy of Mongolia. In one of the rare piercing comments made by Neff, she confirms this. The Horse Boy, as composed by filmmaker Scott, seems to relish the thoroughly “open-minded” Isaacson's lack of basic prudence—partly as romanticization, but perhaps more calculatedly as celebrating the prime mover of the “plot”—at the expense of greater insights into the more intriguing subject matter that is largely unexplored. While personalizing the film is necessary when dealing with such inherently intimate subject matter, the film never quite becomes more than validation for Isaacson. Consequently, best intentions notwithstanding, it never presents itself with the compelling, involving urgency that best suits the cinema.