In August 2018, after years of self-professed “unhealthy” living and a litany of symptoms that scared the hell out of her, actress Selma Blair received a startling diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Suddenly, a lot made sense: the tremors that kept her from everyday living, the incipient terror that had often led her to drink, a leg that always seemed to want to drag behind her. But with the diagnosis came different fears and worries, including the big one: Would she die from this?
Blair, best known for her work in films like “Cruel Intentions” and “Legally Blonde” — a proud supporting actress, as she tells it — isn’t exactly resigned to her fate, and Rachel Fleit’s “Introducing, Selma Blair” lets that spirit, and all the emotions that come with it, frame this raw and often very funny documentary. The film orients Blair as the leading lady of her own life, a brash and hilarious presence who is so disarmingly honest that it’s difficult not to feel invested in her within minutes of the film’s opening.
The documentary opens inside Blair’s Studio City home nearly a year after her diagnosis and finds her whinging between sparkly good humor and moments in which her illness makes it almost impossible for her to even speak. (The film is Fleit’s feature-length debut, but she’s had a long career in filmmaking, and previously served as creative director of Killer Films Media. She’s also got alopecia, an autoimmune condition that led to her being bald when she was just a teen.)
While the first act of the film walks us through Blair’s life and the story of how she discovered her illness, the always-open star peppers it with some revelatory teases, some of which the film leaves unfulfilled. There’s Blair’s ruminations on wanting to be “a better person” (really, the theme of the film) and indications of her fraught relationship with her mother (enough to frame another doc) tucked alongside shots of moving through her days, often in great pain.
As a working actress for nearly three decades, Blair is a recognizable star with plenty of famous friends (any good millennial will tell you that she and “Cruel Intentions” co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar are BFF). Yet Fleit kits out the film’s assorted talking heads with less starry names, which only adds to its intimacy. The assemblage of close friends on display include the people who are by her side most of the time, including longtime manager Troy Nankin and dedicated assistant Bonny Burke, plus her beloved son Arthur and older sister Lizzie.
Beyond that intimacy, Fleit gently steers into more complicated waters. By the end of the first act, Blair’s upcoming stem cell transplant becomes the film’s focus. Despite her optimism that the stem cell transplant will miraculously make her all better, Fleit’s film — hell, Blair’s life — doesn’t track such a movie-ready path. “Introducing, Selma Blair” often feels a bit messy and unfinished by its final act, but that’s also part of its charm (and realism).
While Fleit’s film turns its attention to Blair’s treatment — you can see why it appealed to Discovery, which picked up the medically minded doc before its festival premiere — “Introducing, Selma Blair” is reticent to dig too deeply into the process. No one mentions that the transplant is somewhat controversial, though Blair’s fears hint that it’s hardly an accepted treatment. She’s in uncharted waters, but viewers might be surprised to learn she was one of the last to swim in them. Weeks after Blair returned home from enduring the program, closed “abruptly” in 2019.
If her treatment kicks up more questions than answers, at least the experience brings Blair closer to her viewers. Fleit finds dark humor in some of the film’s more upsetting sections because Blair does, too. When the actress unpacks her various burial options after a particularly painful first round of chemo, Fleit folds in a slightly kicky score and — as if she can hear it— soon Blair is laughing through her tears.
Blair’s open-hearted nature makes her a fine fit for any fact-based film, and she is just as ready to talk about the minutiae of her ailments as she is taking the audience through some of the more salacious bits of her life (her 2016 “plane meltdown” being just one of them). There’s just one problem: Now that we’ve really met Selma Blair, it’s tough to not want to see more of her and her unusual life. With any luck, this introduction is only the beginning.
“Introducing, Selma Blair” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Discovery+ picked it up before the festival and will release it later this year.