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Movie Review

The Horse Boy

A well-meaning but arduous trek

Rupert Isaacson brought his autistic son, Rowan, to Mongolia to see a shaman. Rupert Isaacson brought his autistic son, Rowan, to Mongolia to see a shaman. (O. Rufus Lovett/Zeitgeist Films
)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 6, 2009

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No one wants to say that a movie about two parents’ wish to alleviate their son’s autism is a bad idea. But when that wish produces an arduous trek across Mongolia in search of a shaman and when the movie about that trek is called “The Horse Boy,’’ my eyebrows go up. And up they stayed for most of this well-meaning but trying documentary. Parents of autistic children might recognize more than a bit of themselves in Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, and their struggle to find some tranquillity for their 6-year-old, Rowan. Traditional medical treatments haven’t done much to reduce the intensity of Rowan’s tantrums. But Isaacson takes a detour from what most parents might try.

“The Horse Boy’’ - that name - captures the parents undergoing various rituals suggested by their Mongolian guides. It suggests that horses might not be the cure-all that Isaacson hopes. It feeds us a steady stream of psychiatrists and autism experts both to explain the disorder and the toll it takes on parents. But watching little Rowan writhe and wail, whether it’s in the Asian desert or on a bathroom floor, you’re uncomfortably aware that a camera is rolling. On the one hand, those shots help us understand what Isaacson and Neff are up against. On the other, how would Rowan feel about this?

In the opening minutes, Isaacson tells us, “It’s not a story about autism. It’s a story about how we as family decided to do something crazy.’’ As it turns out, that something is not so much the decision to take Rowan well east of Texas, where Isaacson and Neff live, but to film and distribute the entire journey.

Whenever he can, Isaacson narrates the film with clichés (“The world had been our oyster,’’ “A light bulb went off in my head,’’ “It’s like being hit across the face with a baseball bat’’). He grew up on an English horse farm (he’s a Brit) and has done some writing and reporting on the Kalahari Bushmen. Isaacson clearly loves his son. This film, which Michel O. Scott shot and directed, presents him as a man who might also enjoy the noble light Rowan’s difficulties cast him in. He explains to the camera why the entire experience with Rowan has made him a better father. Then he frets in that relentless narration that “I couldn’t help wondering: Did I have his best interest at heart? Was I being a terrible father?’’ It’s nothing like asking your son to pretend he was aloft in a helium balloon. But “The Horse Boy’’ feels as much about Rowan as the Balloon Boy incident seemed to be about little Falcon Heene, which is to say only loosely.

The world of documentary is full of tough ethical calls - what to show, how to show it. “The Horse Boy’’ puts Isaacson at the center of his son’s story. And while the seemingly unvarnished conflict he shares should help some families cope with a child’s autism, it does little to erase the taint of vanity Isaacson leaves on this film.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE HORSE BOY

Directed by: Michel O. Scott

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 93 minutes

Unrated