The HBO Documentary Series is easily one of the best programs on television. So it is a delight to see numerous documentaries from the series make the shortlist for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. Five of the fifteen films shortlisted aired on the HBO Documentary Series. Unfortunately, I missed out on two of those documentaries when they originally aired. When I finally did get to First Cousin Once Removed and Life According to Sam, I realized why I skipped over these two films in the first place: their subject matter is quite difficult to watch. While both films tackle noble causes (Alzheimer’s Disease and Progeria) respectively, they ultimately would have functioned better as shorts where it is easier to take in a touch subject matter without hitting your audience over the head with the subject matter.
First Cousin Once Removed follows filmmaker Alan Berliner (a respected documentarian who has won awards at Sundance, Berlin and the IDA Awards for previous films) as he interacts with his mother’s first cousin, Edwin Honig ,over the course of a few years. Edwin was a respected poet, author and professor who has Alzheimer’s. Berliner makes an interesting choice by showing the progression of Alzheimer’s outside of a medical capacity, and it works quite well as it gives us a more intimate portrayal of the effects of the disease. That being said Berliner also makes a bizarre choice to spend a large amount of time giving us the life story of Edwin Honig. This would have worked fine if he had connected it back to the effects of Alzheimer’s but it never comes in an effective manner.
Life According to Sam follows Leslie Gordon and Scott Berns, a mother and father who are desperately searching for a cure to progeria so they can save their son’s life. The film is directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix (Oscar winning documentarian behind Inocente and War Dance). While both this film and Inocente (which was released last year) follow people trying to overcome the odds to improve their life, they feel so different. Inocente is an inspiring and happy look at a young women’s success while Life According to Sam follows a more desperate, frantic and open-ended quest. The film does a great job of introducing the audience to progeria. However, it suffers from the fact that it becomes very repetitive. It would have really helped the film if it had a runtime similar to Inocente, and I think the filmmakers could have still introduced Leslie Gordon, Scott Berns and Sam while showing the status of the fight against progeria in that short of a runtime.
First Cousin Once Removed and Life According to Sam are both problematic films that showcase noble narratives. I think Life According to Sam works a bit better as a film as it has a purpose and narrative and hammers that home for its entire runtime (even if it is a bit excessive). First Cousin Once Removed also has its merits as it gives a unique viewpoint of a disease that many people come across.
First Cousin Once Removed=6/10
Life According to Sam=7/10