Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.01: Stumped

Another IFFBoston already completely in the books, and I'm just starting to get the reviews posted, because this ain't my job, evident from the member pass I purchased my own self rather than the press pass I've had in previous years. This puts me three festivals behind right now, although BUFF just has a few shorts as stragglers and the sci-fi fest isn't much of a priority.

After fifteen years, a lot of opening night is familiar. Get off the T, pick the pass up, back in a different line to hang out with friends I don't see that often before getting in, finding the area I usually grab in Somerville Theatre #1 is taken and so wind up at the far right, which is going to make the "horrible photography" tag even more appropriate. I mean, just look at that picture to the right of Jon Bernhardt; it just doesn't do him justice. But, I think we can agree, this is the proper attire for theremin players, right? Much like tuxedos are de rigeur for the symphony, this is how one must dress to play an instrument that involves moving your hands through magnetic fields.

Eventually, Brian got up on stage, thanked the volunteers and the sponsors (fun fact: I still have only the vaguest idea what a Talamas is), and then we were off to the races. It was kind of odd when Stumped was announced as the opening-night film, mostly because it seems like it's been around for a while; I'm pretty sure a short or work-in-progress version has appeared in Emerson's Bright Lights series a couple of times. It's not something I've seen, but something I could have.

It wound up being a pretty good movie, with an impressive group of guests:

Left to right, we have director Robin Berghaus, subject Will Lautzenheiser, his partner Angel Gonzalez, and comedic collaborator Steve Delfino.

In a lot of ways, the Q&A followed the arc of the film - very funny and irreverent at times, but also with an overpowering sense of gratitude toward Will's donor that could have seemed like too much if it weren't obviously sincere. Indeed, I think one of the more intriguingly telling moments of the session was Will saying that he wasn't planning on doing more comedy around his new situation and challenges because he had a hard time coming up with gags that didn't have the potential to come across as disrespectful either to his donor or the entire transplant process.

Stumped (2017)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Unlike a lot of documentaries that necessarily change during the making, Stumped handles the fact that its subject's life doesn't stand still worth aplomb. Though it would have likely been a nifty documentary if its subject - a young filmmaker who needed all four extremities amputated after a horrifying infection - had just used stand-up comedy as a way to cope with the new challenges he faced, the fact that he was able to have a dual arm transplant during filming adds new, intriguing material.

Indeed, I believe that a short version with just the first half of the story had been making the rounds for a few years, and I suspect that it's uplifting enough on its own, despite how the opening, where Will Lautzenheiser feels a pain two days into his job teaching film at Montana State University and, by the time he gets to the emergency room, this group A staph infection has snowballed into toxic shock, necessitating the amputation. It's hard to see anything coming after that as a best-case scenario, but it's arguable that this is what happens: He commits to full-time rehab, learns to accomplish what he can with limited capacity and prosthetic limbs, and eventually takes to the stage at a Boston improv club with jokes nobody else could get away with making. That positive attitude is part of the reason that the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital find him to be an excellent candidate for a transplant, as the rehab for that is tremendously intense.

Stick with the first half of the story, and you've got a fairly strong documentary. It's based around a very personable guy with a likable support network, and both Will and filmmaker Robin Berghaus have a good idea of what's entertainingly self-deprecating without being disrespectful of the greater community dealing with that sort of disability, getting genuine laughs rather than ones given begrudgingly because He's So Brave. There are moments of calculated unease, from photos of how quickly and thoroughly the infection destroyed healthy tissue to the understandable discomfort that co-exists with his twin brother's support, but also a willingness to show how WIll managed both simple and complex things that carefully stokes and satisfies the audience's curiosity (and I daresay his handwriting is better than mine). Overall, there's a fine balance between demonstrations of what his rehab and day-to-day is like and the more personal, less technical material.

Full review on EFC.

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