The Horse Boy

Dir: Michael Orion Scott

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Zeitgeist Films

93 Minutes

Most societies try to include the mentally handicapped, integrating them into cultural and familial units, while the United States tries to separate such people, setting up institutions to prevent any schism in normalcy, argues Rupert Isaacson in The Horse Boy. Isaacson, an Austin-based writer/journalist knows about mental illness firsthand: his young son, Rowan, has been diagnosed with autism. Rather than succumb to his screaming fits, incontinence and social isolation, Isaacson and his wife Kristin, a psychology professor, instead take Rowan to Mongolia to see if shamanic healing can help.

Though it may sound far-fetched, the Isaacsons’ plan is borne out sheer frustration. Rowan is an absolute terror to deal with, as shown in unflinching documentation of his emotional eruptions. However, a story that would have made a fascinating segment on the news or a human interest television program makes for a shambolic, disconnected film that feels more like a smug vanity project for Issacson than an honest attempt to heal his son’s autism. Though it can be construed as touching that Issacson feels he is a better father due to Rowan’s condition, that statement reveals the crux of the family’s project. Sure, having an autistic kid requires endless patience and energy, but the documentary should be about Rowan and his struggles, rather than his father’s need for substantiation in rearing a child.

Structurally, The Horse Boy jumps from the interminable wandering across Mongolia to private moments in Texas, like Kristin trying to coax Rowan to poop on the toilet and other embarrassing moments that will do nothing but humiliate the young lad when he grows older. But the biggest transgression of the film is witnessing the Isaacsons’ all-consuming quest marginalize the people of Mongolia as if everyone the family encounters serves as nothing more than to help Rowan. They even co-opt another Mongolian child to keep Rowan company. Of course, the child is given no voice and in most scenes he seems nothing more than mildly perturbed at the behavior of his autistic companion.

When Rowan is eventually healed, the family questions whether it was the shaman’s touch or the trip itself that helped him overcome his social ambivalence and incontinence. While it is a touching triumph for a family at its wit’s end, The Horse Boy is much more effective when not focusing on the Isaacsons’ travails. When examining the issue of autism itself, via a series of talking head experts, and the place of autistic individuals in our society, the film is both thought-provoking and enlightening. But to force us to endure the Mongolian sojourn feels more like a trip of the ego than any other grand journey.

by David Harris

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