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NEW YORK — “The Horse Boy” is a leap of faith, both for the subjects of this fascinating and intimate documentary and for the filmmaker, Michel Orion Scott. The director first met human-rights activist Rupert Isaacson at a book talk about the plight of the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana, and volunteered his services for a film about their struggle. But Isaacson had another project in mind.
Isaacson and his wife, psychology professor Kristin Neff, were the parents of a 5-year-old autistic boy, Rowan, and had decided on a highly unusual plan to seek treatment for their child. Rowan, subject to horrible tantrums and generally closed off to human contact, had developed a remarkable bond with the neighbor’s old mare: Suddenly, the boy seemed engaged with the world when caressing and riding the horse.
An amateur anthropologist, Rupert then hit on the idea of traveling to the nomadic encampments of Mongolia, where horses are a central part of the culture and a tradition of shamanistic healing prevails. With Scott and his crew along to record the journey, the result is an involving, thought-provoking film that should generate buzz in the art house arena with careful handling.
The strength of the doc is that is does not propagandize with a heavy hand. In fact, Isaacson’s wife is quite skeptical about this mystical mission and whether it’s worth all the discomforts of their unconventional itinerary. But the evidence onscreen is persuasive.
After an arduous trek, the Isaacson family finally enters the land of the shamans. The elaborate ritual that follows produces a dramatic change in young Rowan’s behavior. Just as autism itself is rife with mystery and Rowan’s bond with that horse back home is inexplicable, the shamans’ age-old ceremony has a startling efficacy that makes you question the dominance of Western belief systems.
Apart from its gentle challenge to modern science, “The Horse Boy” is a sympathetic account of the daily hell that parents of severely autistic children must endure. Rupert and Kristin use the phrase “Code Brown” to describe the all-too-frequent episodes in which Rowan lapses into screaming fits that pierce the air and bring any other activity to an abrupt halt. It’s a tribute to this bright couple that they remain so calm and good-natured through this debilitating daily challenge.
Scott helps put the family’s odyssey in context via interview footage with autism experts including Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of shock comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) and Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal behavior at Colorado State University, who herself has autism.
For both the parents and the filmmakers, the journey of “The Horse Boy” was tough and utterly unpredictable, but their act of faith has produced a film that’s surprisingly upbeat, evenhanded and imbued with wonder.
Opens: Sept. 30 (Zeitgeist Films)
Production company: Horse Boy Foundation
Director: Michel Orion Scott
Producer: Rupert Isaacson
Director of photography : Michel Orion Scott, Jeremy Bailey
Music: Kim Carroll, Lili Haydn
Editor: Rita K. Sanders
Not rated, 94 minutes
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