It’s every parent’s nightmare: that something will happen to their child that’s out of their control, affecting the rest of the child’s life – and the parents’.
Among the cruelest is autism, which afflicts Rowan Isaacson and his parents, Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff. Rowan, a charming, normal child to the age of 2, morphed into a full-time job for his parents when he began to withdraw into himself, throwing tantrums and ignoring toilet-training. His only connection, it seemed, was to animals, particularly to horses.
So, in Michel Scott’s documentary, “The Horse Boy,” his parents take a leap into the unknown. Rupert, a former horse trainer and author who has studied the spiritual and medical practices of indigenous people, convinces Kristin to take Rowan to Mongolia. There, they will travel across the countryside on horseback to meet shamans in remote areas, in hopes that these spiritual healers can find a way to unleash Rowan from autism’s hold.
Scott intercuts footage of the journey with at-home footage and home movies of the Isaacsons, alternately playing with and coping with Rowan, dealing with his tantrums to the point that they are obviously fried and frazzled. Some days, he seems pliable; others he is hidebound, locked in to the familiar, inconsolable when routine is changed. Though he is six or seven, he acts more like he’s a toddler in his emotional responses to disappointment or unhappiness.
Yet he responds to animals, particularly to horses. When Rupert puts him atop a tame old mare, Rowan rests on her comfortably, and even talks quietly at a nearly age-appropriate level.
The trip across Mongolia is a risky one. Aside from the fact that the family of three will be traveling mostly by horseback into a wilderness without roads, there’s the question of Rowan’s condition. An earlier at-home video shows the complex of pharmaceuticals the Isaacsons must mix into Rowan’s milk every morning just to keep him on as even a keel as he’s on.
Plus the smaller considerations: Traveling by horseback is physically wearing, particularly with an often-squirming child riding double with you. And then there’s that toilet-training issue, which the Isaacsons ruefully refer to as “Code Brown.”
Yet, when they arrive in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and meet with a group of shamans – who pronounce Rowan the victim of a malevolent force and take appropriate shamanistic action – the results are encouraging, at least temporarily. He suddenly starts playing with their guide’s young son in a way he has never played with another child and seems less intractable in his behavior – at least temporarily.
Small steps – and each one seems accompanied by a backward step later on. As they set out on the horseback portion of the trip, Rowan refuses to stay on a horse, struggling and yelling until he is allowed to ride in the accompanying van. Yet his incremental progress away from dysfunctional behavior keeps his parents hopeful enough to continue an arduous journey that will include pausing to bathe in a holy lake – and eventually abandoning the van altogether for a horseback trek into the mountains to find “the reindeer people,” a tribe that herds reindeer and whose shaman supposedly has the greatest power of any they’ve encountered.
To some viewers, no doubt, this will all seem hopelessly new-agey, with starry-eyed parents chasing mystical conceits in hopes of a miracle cure. Yet given the grindingly exhausting, sometimes spirit-crushing lot of the parents of an autistic child, who can blame the Isaacsons for seeking assistance outside the realm of Western medicine – which has yet to find even an inkling of how to treat the condition? Who can say what any parent, given the means and the time, would do if it meant a more normal life for their only child?
In that sense, “The Horse Boy” is a fascinating examination of parental love and the blind faith that sometimes is required in what otherwise seems like a cold and cruel world. This film offers one family’s journey, which ultimately teaches the parents as much about themselves as about their child. It’s hard to watch at times, but offers an emotionally compelling experience nonetheless.