Rowan is autistic. At age 5, he's spiraling deeper into obsessive behavior, social disconnection, and daily tantrums that crash like waves and can last for hours. He's almost unreachable, but when he connects with animals he's calm and talkative and, remarkably, communicative. Taking Rowan from his Austin, Texas, home to the steppes of Mongolia—riding on horseback from shaman to shaman in hopes of some kind of spiritual cure—is a bit of a vague logical leap, but why not? Conventional medicine isn't working. "It's just absurd," recalls mom about the initial idea, a skepticism that Rupert—dad, narrator, and project mastermind—echoes throughout. He makes a show of questioning his motivations without ever acknowledging or explaining an even more radical part of the project: He invites a camera crew to follow them. This is a documentary as spiritual odyssey and personal journey, but just whose journey are we really getting?
The Horse Boy intelligently and sympathetically addresses the reality of autism and how little we actually understand the condition, and there's no doubting that Rowan's parents have the best intentions. But the line between documentation and exploitation gets awfully blurred as we realize that part of this intimate family adventure is an intrusive camera crew in Rowan's face. It's an educational experience for the audience, but is it healthy for an autistic child ripped from the comfort of his routine? "All I know is, we went to the shamans and now this is happening," offers Rupert rather disingenuously. I suppose it feels good to believe, but the rest of his story, especially the therapeutic properties of animals, gets lost in an embrace of spiritual healing that would seem suspicious from an American faith healer.