Some movies push beyond perceived moral boundaries for the sake of being purely transgressive. "Farewell to Hollywood," documentarian Henry Corra's collaborative project with Regina Nicholson -- who died of cancer last year at the age of 19 -- has a blurrier agenda. Corra, whose previous credits include "The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan," began a peculiar relationship with Nicholson after meeting her at a film festival and learning of her interest in completing a feature before her death. The mission is noble, but the final, scrappy product contains an ethical dubiousness that slips between Nicolson's apparent intentions and those of the much older man with whom she spent her dying days.
Is it a provocation from beyond the grave or a misconceived paean from the surviving director? Alternately confounding, upsetting and riddled with grief at every turn, "Farewell to Hollywood" is certainly the most paradoxical moviegoing experience I've endured this year.
Fortunately, there's no surprise moment involving Nicholson's death. Corra establishes that much upfront, explaining his initial interest in Nicholson with an opening title card and including footage where her ashes at buried at one of her favorite outdoor spots. Her parents, Corra explains, have not yet learned of her demise. From there, "Farewell to Hollywood" flashes back to 2010 and quickly establishes the spunky Nicholson as a diehard movie buff whose walls are lined with DVDs. Her ebullient Christian parents, encouraged after her recent surgery to remove a tumor in her leg, seem to encourage her interests and Corra's investment in helping her explore them.
The filmmakers -- taking the project at face value, the dual credits imply that there are always two authors at work here -- further emphasize Nicholson's burgeoning cinephilia with a series of flash cuts that shift between her life and the movies that excite her: A fleeting shot of Nicholson using her inhaling is followed by Uma Thurman (Nicholson's fashion idol) jerking upward during her infamous heroin-snorting scene in "Pulp Fiction"; the helicopters from "Apocalypse Now" emphasize the increasing gloominess caused by her sickness. The device is immediately over the top and never quiet settles in, although it stands out for the very same reason, by showing the obsessive elements of the dying Nicholson's burgeoning cinephilia: Movies provide her with a gateway to worlds she'll never fully explore on her own.
Because "Farewell to Hollywood" aims to represent both directors' points of view early on, its subjective ingredients are troubling from the start. But Nicholson's perseverance when faced with her dour prognosis provides a remarkable narrative in spite of the questionable methods used to tell it. Over time, Nicholson endures a heartbreaking series of spats with her beleaguered parents, who eventually reject her when she chooses to move out in a bid to experience young adulthood during the small window of time available to her.
The bumpy road to their ultimate estrangement unfolds with heavily sad component. However, the language of the narrative leads to an invasive, voyeuristic quality enforced by the camera's presence; while Corra may have felt strongly about helping Nicholson and she embraced his assistance, it's hard not to wonder if he crossed some line by insisting in remaining a part of the family's struggle.
"Farewell to Hollywood" frequently leaves too much up for interpretation. As Corra and Nicholson become better friends, the movie includes extreme close-ups of the two of them as they drive around together and share smiles; much of their cheeky communication unfolds through text messages provided onscreen in captions riddled with emoticons. Any preconceived notions about the essential boundaries between non-fiction storytellers and their subjects have clearly been abandoned.
During a Q&A following the world premiere of "Farewell to Hollywood" at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam this week, Corra said he was no stranger to such concerns.