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Tribeca Review: ‘TransFatty Lives’ is a Groundbreaking Documentary About Living With ALS

Tribeca Review: 'TransFatty Lives' is a Groundbreaking Documentary About Living With ALS

New York underground filmmaker Patrick O’Brien narrates “TransFatty Lives,” the documentary about his experience with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — aka Lou Gherig’s Disease — in the mechanical voice that ultimately replaced his real one after a tracheotomy. The effect is immediate intimacy with O’Brien’s perspective as well as his condition, a remarkable feat that extends to the rest of the movie, which O’Brien himself directed over the course of the decade that has elapsed since his initial diagnosis.

The resulting project is a stirring blend of diary film and advocacy, chronicling the debilitating effects of ALS and various means of coping with it, with O’Brien’s perseverance conveyed in each scene by the movie’s very existence. 

But “TransFatty Lives” stands out less for its inherently emotional topic than the appealing personality at its center. The portly, bearded O’Brien’s spunky attitude, epitomized by his online identity as performance artist TransFatty, comes through in his rambunctious camera presence early in the movie, when he playfully teases a doctor about his diagnosis. O’Brien’s vibrant attitude continually gives the tragedy of his condition a unique context. Rather than inviting viewers to commiserate with him, he invites them in.

However, O’Brien makes it clear that he has only one real viewer in mind: In the movie’s opening sequence, he explains that the project has been conceived as a letter to his infant son, before segueing into complimentary descriptions of himself by his friends that he sarcastically rejects outright. The self-deprecating attitude provides the director with a sly means of developing his own personal revelations as he learns to accept his situation. An avant garde metalhead with a hard-partying streak, he’s a uniquely colorful guide to exploring the extremes of mortal struggles.

Several amusing early moments set the stage for the more profound expressions that follow as O’Brien’s physical shape worsens. Eventually, he turns to writing poetry for catharsis. The words frequently appear onscreen while O’Brien’s robotic narration delivers them bit by bit, and the creative means of conveying his experience leads to a continual source of enlightenment: From a series of sonnets about a “funeral for my arms” to another involving his inability to shoo insects from crawling up his nose, O’Brien conveys the precision of his evolving coping mechanisms.

Such inventiveness strengthens the revelatory nature of his assertion that, far from being trapped by a horrific disability, ALS becomes “a beautiful disease.” Realizing that his physical discomfort is “inversely proportionate to my inward journey,” O’Brien makes it possible to witness his progress from the inside out.

His funky, rebellious attitude is matched by the uplifting nature of his story, which finds him impregnating his girlfriend several years after his diagnosis and coming to grips with his limitations as both parent and religious partner. Yet it’s the degree to which O’Brien exposes every troubling facet of his experiences that allows “TransFatty Lives” to go beyond the inspiring nature of its events and transform into enthralling cinema.

With any other director behind the camera, certain scenes of the weakened figure facing each new chapter of his disease — in one case, battling to breath and begging to push back the tracheotomy that will rob him of his voice — the movie might seem voyeuristic. Instead, O’Brien offers a spectacular window into the marathon that defines his daily life, yielding a far more powerful depiction of ALS than any given moment in last year’s Stephen Hawking melodrama “The Theory of Everything.” While O’Brien clearly enjoys hamming it up for the camera, it’s that same attitude that enhances the poignancy of his journey.

Much like one of O’Brien’s funky pre-ALS creations, “TransFatty Lives” is far from perfect and very rough around the edges. Not every sequence works — one unsettling bit that cuts between a bedridden O’Brien moving his bowels and a televised healing session goes on way too long — but his personality sustains the project through these rockier moments, to the point where he even apologizes for a scene that starts to drag.

The flaws of “TransFatty Lives” bring it down to earth, just as O’Brien does for his disease. Notably, one might easily misread the title’s second word as a noun, as if it referred to multiple lives of TransFatty, but it’s actually a plural verb for good reason: By its end, “TransFatty Lives” leaves no doubt that its hero not only lives to accept his state, but thrives on it.

Grade: A-

“TransFatty Lives” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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Nicholas Mydra

Come up to Toronto Hot Docs to have an adventure starting Wednesday, April 29 running into the first week of May you can give your life a boost, see "Transfatty Lives" and be energized.

Heather D

I don’t see why there are not big producer companies not grabbing this! It IS something that Desperately needs to be out there for awareness and also to help who is going through this Horrific Diseae, family, friends, etc. maybe get a better understandung, what to expect….I had a Best Friend pass away recently who only lived not even 3 months of diagnosis and we are still in shock, awe, etc. We learned a lot real fast, but trying to understand…. Please support this movie. I can’t wait to see it out there, in Canadaas well

James Higens

As a fellow ALS patient, I look forward to seeing this film. ALS is a disease that has silently lived in the shadows for too long. As with so many things, public awareness can drive things like nothing else. This film is looking for a distribution partner. It would seem to me that some Ice Bucket Challenge money would help distribute this film and keep ALS on the awareness radar.

Peter Rinaldi

One of my favorite sequences in the film you say goes on "way too long." I am not trying to be combative, and I wouldn’t even comment about this if it had been any other sequence in the film you were referring to. But that one in particular is very powerful for me and I actually feel it is absolutely perfect. It would bother the hell out of me if he decided to cut it down after reading this review from a respectable critic. I am certainly not trying to say you are wrong. But I just want to chime in with an entirely different viewpoint on that sequence. I saw it as having a brilliant structure all to its own. And I’d venture to say you should revisit it and you might have a different feeling about it. The statement he is saying there, to me, is different than anything else in the movie, and requires the time that he gives it. If it were merely a shot of someone taking a shit, perhaps I can see how that would be considered a long time on it, but it is so much more than that. It has to do with God and a painful, embarrassing loss of a certain kind of hope. Maybe one that was useless anyway. And the juxtaposition used, and the presentation of that juxtaposition, I think is brilliant and something might be lost if it is cut down. That’s all I wanted to say. Again, there is no right or wrong here. I value your opinion. I just wanted to offer mine. Thanks for giving me the chance to do that.

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