The Horse Boy on DVD: All You Need Is Love, with Yak Yogurt


Inspirational, feel-good, pro-active, holistic goodness simply fires out of The Horse Boy (Zeitgeist Films) like jets of super-soaker tear-water, as it is a documentary made by an autistic boy's parents about their strenuous, globetrotting attempt at find a mystical "cure." Who could be cynical? The patience and fortitude at work in the lives of Brit journalist Rupert Isaacson and psych prof Kristin Neff as they handle their gorgeous but seriously impaired son Rowan is redoubtable, and once Rowan communes with a horse and Isaacson indulges in fond memories of shamanistic cures he witnessed in Africa, one can hardly blame the family for packing the kid up and taking him to the one spot on the globe where horses and shamanism traditionally entwine: Mongolia.

The film, co-directed by Michel Orion Scott, doesn't show us what the 24-hour plane ride was like, and for that we thank the patron saint of judicious documentary editors. Rowan Isaacson, as we see, is prone to severe autistic tantrums that sound like a chainsaw ripping through a truck fender, and they tended to happen at inopportune public moments. Once the family lands in Mongolia, meet the first brace of shamans and then begin the arduous trek to the uplands, what follows is terribly sweet: Rowan emerges, slowly and partially, to engage with his environment, and his exhausted parents don't know whether it's magic or just the radical change of environment. Neither do they care, of course, since Rowan's improved capacities -- spoiler! but c'mon, you knew it -- seem permanent.

The emotional and dramatic peak of the film is the attainment of toilet-training skills -- certainly a film-history first -- and having grown up with an autistic brother, I can empathize with the Isaacsons' travails. And as a parent, it's easy, too easy, to put yourself in these people's shoes. Then you notice how the film crew was in their Texas kitchen before the decision to go to Mongolia happened, and how the film is accompanied by a bestselling book, and the odor of opportunism seeps into the scene. Maybe. You always have to look out for the ethical cracks when someone makes a film about their own family's dilemmas, and I couldn't help, in the end, sympathizing with Rowan. You don't have to be autistic to look at the sanitation conditions, food options ("Rainman" brand cookies!) and transportation situation on the Mongolian taiga and have a tantrum at your folks, too.

But I'm being glib -- and in actuality, I think three or four weeks humping it through Mongolia on horseback and herding reindeer and downing curdled yak milk is exactly what every spoiled, PS2-benumbed, obese American child needs. The Horse Boy is certainly a message of hope for parents of disabled youngsters, but it may just be an object lesson to us all.

· The Horse Boy [Zeitgeist Films]