Three films in four days most certainly counts as a festival wash, but altitude sickness, the presence of family, and general travel disorientation kept me largely out of Sundance’s spread-out Park City venues for better and for worse. Of what I did see, Alan Berliner’s new doc Wide Awake was smart, engaging, and impeccably produced, if somewhat insular, Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay (which has already found a home with IFC Films) was aggressively serviceable, and the last, A Lion in the House represents a cinematic experience which I’ll be hard-pressed to match. I may perhaps be biased as I’ve been receiving periodic updates on the film from its creators, my Aunt Julia and her partner Steve, for the past seven or eight years, such that Lion’s more than just a movie to me—their struggle to make it has entered into the realm of family lore. Up until its world premiere at the Prospector theatre, I’d not had the chance to see any of it (though I did, to my chagrin, discover upon returning home an early 30-minute trailer lying unwatched in a package behind a stack of videocassettes), thus infusing my first encounter with the final work with a whiff of the mythological.
That is, at least, until the film began and I was quickly brought crashing back to earth. Never maudlin or unecessarily sentimental, yet still probably dismissed in more than a few quarters as “that long kids with cancer doc,” Lion’s careful balance of artistry, inquiry and deep, deep empathy render it one of the more staggering documentary works of recent memory. Where the recent spate of political documentaries have largely foregone investigative tactics for ideology, and aesthetics and narrative construction for facile stabs at immediacy, Lion’s filmmakers have taken their easy intimacy with their subjects and catapulted that access into the apotheosis of verité styling. Put plainly, their cameras capture moments that would have remained invisible to filmmakers less committed to their art and to honoring their subjects. This commitment was there for the audience to witness: Three of the five families followed in the film made the trek to Park City for the premiere, and sat close together, openly emotional. Moved as I was, I can only begin to imagine the depth of their feeling.
Still, access is only one side of the equation—great moments are just that, unless arranged correctly, and perhaps Lion’s greatest feat is how nimbly it manages its four-hour running time, and how well it develops its characters across that length (though Julia did confide to me before the screening, “I think it could be maybe twenty minutes longer—really”). An example: about midway through the film an African American teen struggling with cancer (make no mistake, Lion is a film not about death, but struggle) is told by his doctors that his condition requires the insertion of a feeding tube. He actively protests, but eventually agrees to give the procedure a try. As the tube is pushed into his nostril, his discomfort is evident, and he gags and vomits all over himself. His mother helps him clean off, but after the tube has reached his stomach and is taped in place, the camera catches a shot of him alone, dismayed, and humiliated. Powerful in its own right, this sequence devastates as this is no anonymous youth—it’s Tim. Tim, who we’ve come to know over the previous two hours as an irrepressible spirit and unflagging optimist. Tim, who, if he grows up, plans to work at helping the homeless, and who loves Nike. The radical change in his demeanor—from animate to inanimate—immediately captures those other, in some ways more tragic effects of cancer. Beyond pain, debilitation and perhaps death, there’s dehumanization and destruction of individuality—becoming a subject of medicine, no matter how hard the doctors and nurses (who, wonderfully, emerge as just as crucial to the narrative as the families) fight to maintain quality of life.
Lion is populated with a host of such images, the kind that any documentary would be lucky to have, and given the recent mentions on indieWIRE about a piece of tragic news concerning the filmmakers, I wanted to expend a few words to remind readers of the work itself. Julia, Steve, and all the rest of the filmmakers and families have worked too hard and too long for it to go ignored. I can say in full honesty that I’ve never wept so hard in a movie theater, and as I wandered outside afterwards, more than a little dazed, the red, puffy eyes of my fellow audience members bespoke of our shared experience. Set to air on PBS in two parts this June, Lion’s true home is in the movie theatre, amongst a community of viewers. A Lion in the House is the definitive documentary on its subject, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. Dismiss me as a partial, familial booster all you like, but still see the film should it somehow turn up in a theatre near you. .