Sundance 2009 | Suffer Little Children

by twhalliii
January 20, 2009 12:03 AM
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Death and suffering are the worst things we can imagine for our families, and yet, they are always there, floating around the periphery of life, dreadful possibilities that no one in their right mind would ever say aloud. For me, the death or suffering of a child is probably the most frightening of the myriad of possible horrors; a profound interruption of the cycle of life, a seemingly unknowable verdict on the family itself. I can imagine that, as a parent, it must feel something like being trapped in Kafka’s Castle; torn from the life you’ve worked so hard to create for yourself, dragged through an incredible ordeal you can’t believe is happening to you until you are forced to simply assume the blame for the consequences of an action you cannot understand. While a parent feels so deeply for their child, wishes nothing more than to protect and comfort them in the face of suffering, it is the helplessness, the powerlessness to stop the hurting that, I think, would tear me apart.

The complex relationship between parents and the suffering of their children has been the subject of no less than four films in the first three days of my festival. Not to make too much of it, but as a relatively new parent of a six month old, my boy who I miss dearly as I type these words hundreds of miles away from him, these movies have marked me deeply, forcing me to confront my own worst nightmares while trying to think critically about the films themselves. It is virtually impossible for me to do that; I sat in front of my screen for about 90 minutes this afternoon, trying to put things into words, and I was unable to get started. A few hours of small talk and thinking about other things, and now I am back here trying again. My apologies if things get, well, introspective…

What separates Dana and Hart Perry’s intensely personal and deeply moving Boy Interrupted from more traditional depictions of parental loss is the overwhelming sense of inevitability that haunts the film; from the first frame, you feel as though you know what is coming, and as with the Perry family themselves, that knowledge does nothing to soften the blow when it arrives. Evan Perry was 15 when he took his own life, but his fascination with his own death had begun at a frighteningly early age. After standing on the roof of his Middle School and threatening to jump, Evan was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and eventually wound up in a unique children’s mental health facility that seemed to restore emotional balance and order to his and the Perry family’s life. And then, on one indistinguishable night, after a routine outburst at a family dinner, Evan jumped from his bedroom window.


Boy Interrupted

There is a long history of cinema-as-therapy that serves more to heal the filmmaker than to commune with an audience, and thankfully, the Perrys avoid the trappings of that genre with great dignity and clarity of purpose; what allows Boy Interrupted to succeed as a movie is the Perry's refusal to pull any punches, their refusal withhold their emotions and the truth from the audience. As the parents at the heart of the very tragedy they are telling, I have to believe the desire to romanticize and honor the memory of their child was incredibly powerful. And yet, by creating an honest, “warts and all” portrait of a child with a terrible illness, the Perry’s show sublime understanding of Evan's character and humanity, allowing the audience to understand the wide range of meaning in each and every emotion. Despite the temptations, to share anything less than the painful truth would be to cheapen the experience, to undermine the audience’s understanding of the problem and the loss at its heart. Instead what emerges is a tremendous dignity and the almost physical sensation of an absence; this is storytelling craft in its highest form, and somehow, the Perry's emotional proximity to their own story universalizes their filmmaking, bending the technical elements of the film to underscore the broad scope of their grief. I have absolutely no idea how this family found the courage to tell this story in this way, but their decision is a resonant, lucid articulation of grief and loss without the false pretense of a message or a happy ending. I can only wish them peace and endurance.

On the opposite end of this scale is Shana Feste’s fictional melodrama The Greatest, the story of another well-to-do East Coast family who lose a teenage son without warning. After sleeping with his true love for the first time, Bennett (Aaron Johnson) is killed in a car accident that spares the life of Rose (a terrific Carey Mulligan) and sends his parents (Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan) and his underachieving younger brother Ryan (an also terrific Johnny Simmons) into a tailspin. Soon after the funeral, as mom and dad suffer greatly and ignore their surviving son, Rose arrives at the family home and announces that she is carrying Bennett’s child.


The Greatest

The tropes of melodrama swing into the service of the film, and despite the tremendous performances of the younger actors, it is the suffering of the parents that gets the most attention; the emotionally stunted math professor who is unable to mourn the loss of his son and the distant, hallucinating mother who is desperate to know each and every detail of her son’s death. Against the background of their grief, The Greatest also finds moments of tender clarity and humor, the sweet sensation that life will go on as soon as the baby arrives; is there ever a doubt? And so, as the film works its way toward its inevitable bittersweet ending, heartbreak and hope mingle, steeped in the history of melodramatic family tragedies, each button pressed properly and well, each note played professionally, and all of it very familiar.

The sexual abuse of children seems to be an epidemic in South Africa, and in Kim Longinotto’s extraordinary Rough Aunties, a group of tough-minded women set about the task of protecting the rights of sexually abused children through their organization Operation Bobbi Bear, which advocates for victims rights and criminal punishment in a patriarchal and corrupt system. The women themselves are exceptional, rough and tumble and no nonsense, and Longinotto’s handheld style Is a perfect match for the immediacy to their mission. Unlike the patient gaze she displayed in last year’s incredible Hold Me Tight And Let Me Go, Longinotto’s work on Rough Aunties whips and pans, complimenting the drama by placing the audience in the middle of some of the most awful, painful conversations an adult could ever have with a child.


Rough Aunties

After establishing a sort of pattern among the Bobbi Bear workers, Rough Aunties takes a terrible turn into the personal tragedies of the women themselves; A murder and the accidental death of a child provide not only an opportunity to stare more deeply into the well of strength the aunties exhibit, but also showcase the incredibly powerful sense of community and family that has grown among the women themselves. It makes perfect sense, but it is still incredibly powerful to see how the women of Bobbi Bear draw their strength from one another, rising each day despite the horrors of sexual violence to which they bear witness. Rough Aunties is a rare movie, one that balances tragedy and a sense of empowerment, compassion with outrage.

Over The Hills And Far Away is the story of Rowan Isaacson, a four year old boy with pronounced autism, and his father Rupert and mother Kristin, two amazing parents living in Texas who will literally travel to the ends of the earth in the quest to ease the suffering of their family. Despite Rowan’s overtly autistic behaviors (a refusal to interact with others, his obsession with certain routines and his violent, neurologically-based tantrums), the boy has a deep connection with animals, especially his favorite horse. Rupert, a filmmaker whose own travels to cultures practicing traditional medicines had made him a believer in their potential healing power, searched the internet to find a shamanic culture that also had a strong cultural relationship to horses, and discovered the shamanic traditions of Mongolia. Hopeful that Rowan’s love of horses could be combined with shamanic healing, the family set off to Mongolia, to ride horses together and find the most powerful shaman in the country in the hopes of finding help for Rowan’s condition.

What might have been a glorified story of the failures of western medicine and the condescending construction of an exotic, alluring eastern tradition is, in the hands of director Michael Orion Scott, one of the most engaging, hopeful documentaries I have ever seen. Blending the family’s healthy balance of skepticism and hope and refusing to make proclamations of fact where mysteries remain, Over The Hills And Far Away is a completely unexpected blend of adventure and drama. As one who is skeptical of the actual effectiveness of traditional healing (and shamanism in particular), I was pleased to find that the film had no agenda other than finding an end to Rowan’s suffering, no desire to promote any agendas on the issue of autism or on traditional medicine. Instead, what emerges is a tender portrait of a family searching for answers and help.


Over The Hills And Far Away

Despite my reservations about the subject matter, the first feeling I had was one of compassion and understanding, recognition that, despite the extremity of the family’s journey, any parent would undertake whatever tests were required if it meant an end to the pain their child was experiencing. Rupert Isaacson’s particular genius was to understand where his son could be reached and, instead of fighting against Rowan’s constraints, embraced them, pushing the entire family to their limits in order to see what might happen because it probably couldn’t get much worse.

What does happen will, I fear, reshape the conversation about the treatment of autistic children; while the film does not really address the issue, it is clear that not every parent can pack up the family for a month long journey to the reindeer country of northern Mongolia. However, the real lesson to be learned, especially for an outsider like me, is that the specifics of the journey seem less important than the fact that the quest was undertaken at all. I don’t imagine any parent of an autistic child is sitting on their hands, doing nothing and hoping for a cure. As such, there is something mater-of-fact about his journey, a sense of entitlement, which hovered just at the edges of my reaction to the film. That said, having seen what was presented in this terrific film after a few long days of watching almost unfathomable suffering, I was glad to walk away with a sense of authentic hope, a feeling that, at least in the case of Rowan Isaacson, change could happen for the better, that a family worked hard to create their own hope.

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