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The Heartbreakers: “A Lion in the House”

The Heartbreakers: "A Lion in the House"

[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are usually written by critics from Reverse Shot. This week, they’ve handed their column over to Steve Ramos who takes a look at Reverse Shot’s first theatrical release. ]

Non-fiction filmmakers Steven Bognar and partner and co-director Julia Reichert spent years filming inside and around Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for their film “A Lion in the House” and the result is an epic, engaging journey and a rare opportunity to experience what families undergo when one of their children is facing death. Bognar and Reichert’s Herculean efforts help justify the film’s sprawling scope–over 230 minutes in length. Few details are spared and there are moments in the film’s second half when you feel overwhelmed by the minutia of the numerous hospital rooms, taxi rides to the medical center, cramped city apartments and spacious suburban houses. With “A Lion in the House,” Bognar and Reichert have created total immersion cinema.

But the soul of the film, the key question at the heart of these stories, makes every moment matter: When should a parent say no to additional treatment for their child and accept death? It’s a solemn, honest question and the inevitable answers help prepare one for the film’s eventual outcomes.

“A Lion in the House” tells the story of five children, Tim, Justin, Jenny, Alex and Al, and their families during their time on the Children’s Hospital cancer ward. The families represent the diverse population that comes to the hospital. They are black and white, affluent and poor. Sickness unites them in a common fate. These children are front-and-center rendering “A Lion in the House” more family drama than medical story, and the intimacy you feel with them is proof of Bognar and Reichert’s achievement.

The first section of “A Lion in the House” is pure primer, an introduction to the children who appear in the movie. But during that time an emotional bond is formed, and it becomes difficult to turn away. In fact, what’s surprising is how the film looses some grip in its second half, during scenes when it becomes obvious treatments have failed or succeeded. Perhaps, the type of microscopic moviemaking shown by Bognar and Reichert is best at displaying the everyday lives of its all-American subjects. That’s when details matter most. But when dramas unfold, and “A Lion in the House” is the most emotional of human dramas, pinpoint details become annoyances.

Epic documentary filmmaking is nothing new. Claude Lanzmann‘s nine-and-a-half hour “Shoah,” about the Holocaust, is a classic. In 1968, French filmmaker Louis Malle compiled ten hours of film for his documentary “L’Inde Phantome,” an appreciation for India and its people. In these cases, both filmmakers reached out to gargantuan canvases and the scales of their documentaries make sense. Bognar and Reichert take a different approach with “A Lion in the House.” They look to ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances in their lives and dig, dig, dig as deep as they can into the minds and hearts of the families.

At the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where “A Lion in the House” had its premiere, the memory of comatose Terry Schiavo and the battle over to end her life support, was still fresh on the American psyche. “A Lion in the House” offers fresh stories and insights on this difficult issue. But politics is left at the curbside and Bognar and Reichert offer compelling, human stories in its place.

At first glance, you recognize “A Lion in the House” as a digital video work and its jerky handheld movements and somewhat grainy images feel appropriate. “A Lion in the House” speaks to the digital revolution as a movie that could not have been made without the use of handheld digital cameras and inexpensive digital tapes. What’s striking is that Bognar and Reichert did not set out to make a digital movie that would pass for a Hollywood production. Instead, they shot a film worlds apart in appearance from even faux reality dramas like “Syriana.” “A Lion in the House” is the digital revolution at its best, comfortable with its handcrafted origins and besting studio productions in terms of storytelling.

I’ve watched parts of “A Lion In The House” on a DVD on my laptop. I also sat through the Jan. 21 premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. I’m biased towards public cinemas but I’m convinced that the best context for watching the film is with an audience, although an intermission is essential. It’s good news for viewers to learn that “A Lion in the House” will play select art house theaters before a nationwide broadcast on PBS on June 21 and 22. More emotional journey than typical movie watching, Bognar and Reichert create a climax worthy of time, energy and our hearts. There are no final verdicts on the matter of ending treatment for a sick loved one, just heartache.

[Steve Ramos is a veteran film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. He maintains the blog Flyover Oneline. When not writing, he’s advocating independent films via the Cincinnati Film Society.]

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