Marianna Palka in 'The Lion's Mouth Opens' by Lucy Walker
Marianna Palka in 'The Lion's Mouth Opens' by Lucy Walker

Something remarkable about Lucy Walker’s short documentary film “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” which premiered at Sundance, is that in its mere fifteen minute running time a stage is set for a story that will unfold over years -- a lifetime.

The title of the film, which evokes the unlocking of a terrifying, unknowable abyss, is appropriate. The main subject is 32-year-old Marianna Palka, a Scottish actress and indie filmmaker, who herself took a feature film to Sundance in 2008, “Good Dick.” We learn that Palka’s father suffers from Huntington’s Disease, the neurodegenerative disorder that effects both the mind and body (at a certain point in the film it’s ominously described as a cross between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s). When the film cuts in, we find Palka on the eve of learning whether or not she too has inherited the gene mutation.

The Lion's Mouth Opens

“The Lion’s Mouth Opens” unfolds in two acts: First, a dinner gathering of family and friends, giving moral support to Palka (recognizable faces are among the group, including Palka’s longtime partner, actor Jason Ritter, and actress Bryce Dallas Howard); and second, the trip to the doctor’s office, which reveals the test’s outcome.

Walker (“The Crash Reel”) mostly acts as a fly on the wall during the film’s emotional discussions; she had a crew of two, herself and cinematographer Nick Higgins. But she also includes some interviews, with Palka and Ritter, who talk eloquently about the courage needed to confront one’s fate. Palka of course didn’t have to take the Huntington’s gene test. But she felt that knowing was inherently better than not knowing. She tells the camera: “I said that whatever the outcome would be, it would be beautiful. And I’ll serve that life.”

The film, Walker’s sixth at Sundance, could best be described as a suspense tearjerker. Within its opening minutes it builds emotions that many films struggle to capture throughout a feature running time. It really stresses the importance of short film categories at festivals: Some films are best served long, while others are most effective as brief fragments of time, capturing the moment when the lion bares its jaws and the future becomes less scary, more clear.