In “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” filmmaker Marianna Palka (“Good Dick”) is faced with a horrible choice: whether or not to know the results of the genetic test that will tell her whether or not she carries the gene for Huntington’s Disease, a hereditary illness one friend calls “Alzheimer’s plus Parkinson’s.” Documentarian Lucy Walker (“The Waste Land”) is there to film the night before, as Palka gathers friends including Jason Ritter and Bryce Dallas Howard — neither of whom is identified apart from the closing credits — around her to share the last evening she’ll have before, one way or the other, her life is changed forever.
Walker, who expanded her 15-minute short to the half-hour version that premieres on HBO tonight (at the start of National Huntington’s Awareness Month), cuts away from that tense and tearful gathering a few times, mostly to show Palka and her mother sharing memories of Palka’s father, who had to be institutionalized when he became violent as a result of the disease’s progression. But mostly, she stays in the present tense, as Palka and her friends gird themselves to face the future together, knowing it is very different for one of them than for all the rest.
“The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” whose title comes from “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” the poem Bob Dylan wrote for Guthrie as he was dying of Huntington’s, has the intimacy of a home movie at times, but its themes are almost too big to contemplate. Would you take the test, if faced with the 50-50 chance you carried the gene? (Fewer than 10 percent of those who may do.) If the results were positive, how would you live the rest of your life given a certain death sentence of indeterminate length? As Palka points out, we are all going to die, even if most of us don’t know how or when. Facing that moment alongside Palka and her friends is an honor, a gift that allows those of us not in her precise to situation to remember that, whether we remember it every day or not, we all face death, and should remember to live while we can.
“The Lion’s Mouth Opens” premieres Monday, June 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Check here for further air times.
Reviews of “The Lion’s Mouth Opens”
(Note: Some of these reviews give away the results of Palka’s genetic test.)
Sonia Saraiya, Salon
“The Lion’s Mouth Opens” is neither despairing nor hopeful, but endearingly and unsparingly practical: A story of living with both the astounding advances of medical science and its remaining limitations, a story of living with too much understanding of the future and simultaneously too little—a story, really, of navigating both the known and the unknown, as the balance between the two grows fraught, and the day grows dim, and we all wish we had not taken that last detour sign
Collin Souter, RogerEbert.com
Walker and editor Joe Peeler wisely forgo any scoring or any other overly manipulative tactics to conjure up any emotions in the viewer. The film alternates smoothly between scenes of the dinner party to interviews with Palka, Ritter and her mother, to home movies of her family and, finally, a visit to the hospital. What the viewer comes away with is a sense of a tight circle of friends coming together for one in need. The film has a warmth and grace to it that most fictional films of this type rarely achieve.
Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film
This is a straight forward an intimate documentary that quickly forges a connection between us and Palka, through video footage of her as a child and her open approach to talking about the possibility of being diagnosed. The title comes from a Bob Dylan poem, written for funeral of Woody Guthrie, who died from the disease and which Palka recites to her friends over dinner. Walker intercuts her words with footage of Huntington’s sufferers, so we vividly feel the distinction between what is now and what could be if she is diagnosed.