Why Then, Oh Why Can't I?
Beginning deceptively with three-decades-old home movies of young children, 39 Pounds of Love at once corrects that impression with titles indicating that shortly after birth, Ami Ankilewitz was diagnosed with a rare form of MD, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, and written off with a life expectancy of six years, at the outside. More handhelds follow showing the backyard celebration of his thirty-fourth birthday in Tel Aviv, where his Mexican mother Helena and Israeli father moved after that prognosis.
Wheelchaired in by his caretaker and now best friend Asaf, moustached and goateed Ami is at first disconcerting, borne out by shots of park-goers who stare and shy away. The arms are skin over bones, his body is run by normal but tiny organs, and he talks into a performer’s “’Madonna’ style” microphone although his yellow-subtitled speech in English or Hebrew or a little Spanish, is soon understandable. To his divorced parents’ objections, he announces his “need to get the hell out of here . . . do stuff, other things.” Concretely, he will motor across the United States, his equivalent of climbing Everest “whatever it takes,” for the purpose of confronting the Laredo, Texas, doctor who despaired of his longevity and, unmentioned, visiting there a brother estranged from the family he felt gave all its attention to the disabled son, and possibly riding the Harley Davidson tattooed on his atrophied upper right arm.
“I can and I will, I want to do it.”
With Ami’s strong will and astringent humor front and center, and the assistance of Ami’s family and friends, his Tioga RV entourage, and Bob Marley’s “good people we meet along the way,” young Israeli director/co-producer Dani Menkin’s Ophir (Israel’s Oscar) Award-winning film documents the cross-country journey and the courage at its heart.
Hackneyed “inspirational” is left-handed, a filler when we can’t think of a suitable word. “Adventure” is better, and a dangerous one, at that. Theatrical release is a day before Thanksgiving, but the first press screening is in the underpublicized National Disability Awareness Month of October, calling to mind Mask, The Elephant Man and My Left Foot, based on true stories but nonetheless scripted and acted. In contrast to them, when Ami weakens and nearly packs it in at the Grand Canyon, where rangers are not doctors but he refuses Santa Fe hospitalization, it is real, real time, real scary, as the camera grinds and tourists gape. Aside from condensing forty-five minutes on the front lawn into a tenth of that, the unannounced stop at brother Oscar and family’s in Dallas, and a totally surprise second visitor, is all spontaneous. “It’s like I’m gonna pass out in a second. I need a drink,” says a tearful reconciled Oscar.
Before the trip, however, actual flashbacks disclose the immediate reason. A talented 3D computer animator who can move only a single finger on his left hand, he had fallen in love with Cristina, his robust red-headed Romanian caretaker of two years. Drinking with her charge and friends in bars or at a beach bonfire, bathing or pushing him in parks, she “love[s] Ami, okay; like a friend, not the love of two lovers.” When he can stand no more of the situation, he sends her away -- she is currently in her homeland -- and internalizes for the first time that he is “completely different” and begins the animated “yeah, a love story” of a smitten bluebird’s efforts to win his ladylove canary, sections of which appear throughout, accompanied by Chris Gubisch’ original music.
Told like Christy Brown’s parents to institutionalize her son, and like them refusing, mother Helena realizes that the quest must be made alone (of course in the company of those who attend to the physical side of it). Adamant with his less stout-hearted, increasingly concerned retinue, the seeker continues, California to Laredo and on through the Southeast to Miami Beach and an anticlimactic rendezvous with retired Cuban Dr. Cordova, in #507 of “house of Dracula” condominiums. Mixed desert families, service station attendants and sex shop employees, religiously hybrid Miracle Church healers and African-Americans who weigh nine times what he does, are touched, and drawn to him, as are black-clad bikers who lay on hands to bless and send him down the road in the sidecar of, what else, a Harley.
Given life by Ami’s my left finger, the bluebird retrieves the full moon for his beloved. Back at his home monitor, at the end of the birds’ story and of this phase of his own, Ami thinks to Cristina that, “maybe in another life, another physical body, we’ll be together.”
A center of much love himself, this remarkable man is already very much together.
(Released by HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films; not rated by MPAA.)