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In The Horse Boy, we are introduced to Rowan straight away: a screaming child with bandaids over his eyelids from where he’s clawed himself, and soiled pants from an inability to be potty trained. We learn he is autistic.
We then meet the parents, Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff. Kristin teaches college psychology and Rupert writes books on traditional cultures, including traditional healing. They are people of means, with land, goats, and horses. They also exhibit an unanchored spirituality that allows them to approach their son’s illness from outside the strictures of western medicine and science.
That said, the film allows national autism experts to weigh in. We learn there is no single definition of autism. Rather, autism is a spectrum of behaviors from merely anti-social all the way to self-destructive, say from the Ph.D. physicist to the institutionalized. Autistics are united by an overriding ability to focus to the exclusion of all else. In Rowan’s case, the obsession is horses, all else includes self-inflicted pain and soiled pants.
Fortunately for Rowan, animals seem to like the boy. The only time he relaxes is on the back of a big, kind mare. Horses, then, are the needed gateway to a calmer child. Through his knowledge of traditional healers, Rupert discovers the shamans of Mongolia who use horses in their healing. And just like that, the family and a film crew are off to Mongolia.
Rupert is an exceedingly strong personality. He clearly loves his son. He desperately wants to do the right thing for his son. Yet, he’s just as desperately neds to be acknowledged for doing the right thing for his son. My gosh, he took a film crew to Mongolia. I couldn’t help but feel a mix of admiration and exasperation with this guy.
And in Kristin, you see her own mix of admiration and exasperation for the guy. All she really wants is for her son to be potty trained, so much so that she’s willing to horseback across Mongolia. Yet, she maintains a needed skepticism of the whole enterprise. Her tempered expectations and emotions contrast to Rupert’s whose moods ranged from soaring highs on Rowan’s good days to self-pitying lows on the bad days. It’s funny, the shamans suggest Rowan’s problems derive from Kristin’s mentally ill grandmother, but as I watched Rupert I thought: bipolar?
But I left this film not thinnking about mental illness, or Rowan, his mom, or even Rupert. By movie’s end I realized the film is about the unknowable, the mysterious. What do we know about the healing power of a parent’s love? For that matter, what do we know of the healing power of a horse, or a shaman? So whether from the mare, the parents, or the twitching fingers of a Mongolian reindeer herding shaman, all we know is by film’s end a child changes and the parents smile.
Of course, not to be too cynical, the child better change or all that money for the film crew and travel would’ve been wasted. So see, this film really is mysterious.
The Horse Boy plays this weekend, starting Thursday night, at our beloved Gold Town Nickelodeon. Frankly, I was fascinated. This is Clint Farr, Alone at the Movies.