39 POUNDS OF LOVENR
Dani Menkin's documentary 39 Pounds of Love concerns Ami Ankilewitz, a 34-year-old with a rare form of muscular dystrophy whose mother had been told Ami would only live to age six. Part of the film follows Ami as he tries to find the doctor who gave his mother the dire prognosis and show him how well he is doing.
Ami's story is a moving one. Though he weighs only 39 pounds and is wheelchair-bound, Ami is a courageous, intelligent, interesting soul, who has a successful career in 3D computer animation. The film traces Ami's journey from his divorced mother's home in Israel to the flatlands of Laredo, Texas, where he was born. His friends, including the very devoted Asaf, along with the crew, help Ami realize his mission and fulfill some other goals: reuniting in Texas with his estranged brother and riding a Harley-Davidson bike. Finally, Ami tracks down the retired obstetrician in Florida and experiences the closure he craves. Back home in Israel, he channels his feelings into his animation work.
39 Pounds of Love shouldn't be dismissed as My Left Foot meets reality TV-the story is about a real person and his quest is a noble one. (My Left Foot was a dramatization of a real artist with cerebral palsy.) And there are many touching moments-from Ami's break-up with his caretaker Christina before he starts on his journey, to the reunion with his brother (with a surprise appearance by their mother), to the climactic scene with the elderly, clueless doctor. Director Menkin knows how to tell Ami's story in an effective way and his crew does a fine job with the camerawork, editing, etc.
Actually, Ami's story is a little too effective and the crew's job is a little too fine: 39 Pounds of Love suffers from its use of overly manipulative fiction film techniques (now a hallmark of reality-TV shows). Notice the exquisitely framed shot of Ami pining for Christina while sitting in front of a gorgeous sunset (there is even a Christina flashback sequence later in the film!). Listen for the treacly music that accompanies the sad moments and the uplifting Chariots of Fire-type music that underscores the happy moments (e.g., the Harley-Davidson ride). It is also unlikely that the cinéma-vérité "ambush" moments were not really choreographed ahead of time. The participants (brother, doctor, other relatives) act as though they haven't met Ami in years, but they are no more convincing than the hysterical folks in the house-makeover cable shows seeing their renovated digs for the "first time."
It is too bad Menkin didn't trust Ami's story sufficiently to leave well enough alone. The slick window dressing tends to spoil things, but then all documentaries manipulate to a degree. If one ignores the excesses, 39 Pounds of Love becomes a road trip worth taking.