Some people’s stories are so interesting that a book or a movie adaptation alone simply won’t suffice. Sometimes both are needed. Apparently, Rupert Isaacson’s is one of them. An Austin-based journalist, Isaacson has already penned a bestseller about his journey to Mongolia undertaken to heal (though not cure) his autistic son, and now, serving as producer, narrator, and star, he’s brought his tale to the big screen. Everything about the project, which combines footage of the family’s meetings with Mongolian shamans and interviews with autism experts, screams vanity project. From Isaacson’s insistence on placing himself front and center (epitomized in his declaration: “I’m a better father because of [my son’s] autism,” as if the kid only exists for his father’s personal validation), the film’s privileging of private moments that should probably stay private (we twice see the kid going “poopie” on the toilet), to its all-around insistence that we find these people’s struggles as fascinating as they do, The Horse Boy reeks of oily self-regard.
As they make their way across the East Asian plains, the native cultures become one more element that exists only to serve Isaacson’s quest. A young Mongolian boy who befriends the writer’s son is never given any words of his own, his presence at the margins of the screen serving only as a gauge for the white kid’s progress. And while that progress does come in the film’s feel-good ending, until then there’s some severe doubts as to whether dragging the kid halfway across the world on the chance that a miracle cure will curb the boy’s incontinence and make him less intractable is such a good idea. “What are we putting him though?” wonders Isaacson, speaking about the Mongolian journey. Apparently, though, it hasn’t crossed his mind that there’s anything wrong with subjecting his son to the humiliation of having his private failures aired on both the written page and the cinema screen for all to enjoy. After all, such a fascinating story just has to be told. Especially when the validation of a father’s ego is at stake.
Dogging the image quality on this DVD of The Horse Boy feels somewhat unfair given the nature of the documentary's on-the-fly filming. Interiors are pleasantly grainy, with very filmic color levels and solid shadow delineation, but many of the less-controllable outdoor daylight scenes are overblown, and edge enhancement is a near-constant nag. The audio is a little hot at times but nonetheless clear throughout.
Behind-the-scenes footage of the Isaacsons' Mongolian journey is notable for its glimpses of the traditions that thrive in the country's urban centers. Also included here, in addition to the film's theatrical trailer, is a series of interviews with autism experts, who extol the autistic person's ability to work under pressure and time constraints. One even suggests that Isaac Newton might have had the disability.
A solid DVD presentation of a highly dubious documentary experience.