The world's concept of "family" is hardly what it once was. I was often given strange looks in school when I admitted my family actually sat down to eat meals together and chatted about the day's events. In most cases, busy families are more like roommates in your average apartment complex, occasionally stepping foot outside their rooms to mutter a half-hearted greeting in the hallway.
No matter what family you're a part of, though, you're bound to have problems. Maybe Dad lost his job. Maybe your parents got a divorce. It's hard to get through the tough times, but a strong family can make all the difference in the world.
Susan Tom is a woman who believes in a strong family foundation, and she's got 13 kids to prove it. To complicate things a little, eleven of these children are adopted. To complicate things even more, many of the eleven adopted children suffer from a variety of rare diseases, both genetic and otherwise. Fetal alcohol syndrome, which often causes mental retardation and birth defects. Cystic Fibrosis, a mucus-related syndrome that impedes breathing and nutrient absorption. Epidermolysis Bullosa, an extremely rare disease that causes painful sores, open wounds, and other blisters to cover most of the victim's body. It's unfortunate that any such physical and mental conditions exist, and the children that fall victim to them are rarely given the proper treatment. Even if they do, they are rarely blessed with a "normal family life".
At first glance, you'd think placing these children under one roof would be a recipe for disaster, especially considering Susan Tom is now raising these children as a single mother. Fortunately, she happens to possess an amazing amount of love, respect, patience, and---above all else---organization. Weekly trips to the supermarket border on $1000, hospital visits are almost a monthly routine, and countless other extraordinary factors all add up to quite a hectic lifestyle. I don't know how in the world she manages to pull it off on a regular basis, but the story of the Tom family is one of the most inspirational I've seen in recent memory.
First-time director Jonathan Karsh decided to meet the Tom family in greater detail, shortly after their first chance encounter at a trapeze school where Susan took the kids for fun. I'd introduce the children one by one, but Karsh has already done a much better job with My Flesh and Blood, a "year-in-the-life" odyssey of the family's hectic, fun, troubled, tragic, loving relationships with one another. Susan Tom was adamant about not portraying her family as a "Hallmark Movie of the Week" (thank goodness!), ensuring that the many problems inherent with such a family are properly conveyed. My Flesh and Blood is an honest look at a family with a very strong leader, and a true testament to the endurance of the human spirit. The nature of the diseases---physical, mental, and both combined---make for a number of emotionally jarring scenes that will really be tough to watch for some viewers, but this documentary is as real as they come.
I'd say more, but you're much better off letting My Flesh and Blood fill in the blanks. It's easily one of the strongest, most moving films I've seen in the past few years, regardless of genre. Director Jonathan Karsh is definitely a name to watch for after this strong debut, and the Tom family will hopefully receive as much attention and love from admirers that they rightfully deserve. The film was released theatrically in 2003 and broadcast on HBO shortly after, but this strong DVD effort from Docurama is a solid effort that compliments the film perfectly. From a terrific technical presentation to a nice assortment of appropriate bonus material, this is one of 2004's best releases that hopefully won't go overlooked. With that said, let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Although most documentaries offer bland presentations, I was quite impressed with the visual quality of My Flesh and Blood. Presented in a pleasing 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, this looked great for such a typically "ordinary" genre. Colors are natural, overall contrast and clarity were good, and only the smallest bit of edge enhancement was spotted on a few occasions. True, a portion of this footage is low-quality home video footage and other dated material---not to mention that even the best-looking footage is often shot "on the fly"---but I can't really fault it based on source material alone. Overall, the excellent visual presentation was just one of the disc's many highlights.
The audio quality isn't quite at the same level, though it's not a bad effort by any means. Presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround, all of the most important bases were covered, including clear dialogue and music. While the majority of the sound came from the front speakers, the nature of this documentary didn't merit a more complex audio presentation. English subtitles haven't been provided, but closed captioning is also available if your TV supports it.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Presented in the typical Docurama style, the silent menus aren't anything special but they are easy to navigate. The 83-minute film has been neatly divided into a dozen chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. Thankfully, like the film itself, all related bonus materials are presented in an anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio (1.78:1). The packaging includes a standard black keepcase covered with quotes, awards, and other well-deserved praise for the film. A complete Docurama catalog list is also included for your buying convenience.
As much as I loved the film, the viewing experience is further enhanced by some really terrific bonus features. An Audio Commentary with director Jonathan Karsh starts things off, proving to be a great effort from this first-time filmmaker. Karsh seems very organized and has a relaxed style of presentation, making it relatively easy to digest all the personal reflections and other thoughts on the film. It's no surprise that this track is much more personal than technical, but an extra layer of afterthought really put the film in a whole new light. On a related note, there's also a nice series of Follow-Up Interviews with Karsh and Susan Tom (24 minutes total), featuring a series of individual and group thoughts on the filmmaking experience.
Next up is a terrific batch of Deleted Scenes (13 minutes), including a return trip to the trapeze school where Tom and Karsh originally met, as well as a few clips from the road trip taken early on during filming. Although I'd have liked to see even more footage from this trip (Karsh mentions many hours of footage being shot), these scenes offer an even broader glimpse of this extraordinary family. An additional trip outside the home is provided during an Interview with Susan's Eldest Sons, Jeremy and Ben (7 minutes), where both sons testify to the strength, love, and respect shared in the family. Next up is an amusing Behind-the-Scenes clip taken during the road trip---in which Karsh teaches most of the kids how to shave---as well as the film's Theatrical Trailer. Rounding out the film-related extras are a Resources page with a few thoughtful weblinks, text-based Biographies for director Jonathan Karsh and producer Jennifer Chaiken, as well as credits for the film crew. Last but not least is a series of Previews for other Docurama releases.
Owen Gleiberman's front cover quote says it the best: "You'd have to be a stone not to be affected by My Flesh and Blood". This excellent documentary is easily one of the strongest I've seen in recent memory, and should be absolutely required viewing for prospective parents and mature teenagers alike. It's a fascinating story that unfolds well on film, emotionally jarring and genuinely uplifting all at once. Docurama's DVD presentation is a real knockout, thanks to a great technical treatment and a host of equally impressive special features. One of this year's most unlikely surprises, My Flesh and Blood rightfully deserves a spot on the shelf of any serious lover of great documentaries. If that doesn't earn a place in the DVD Talk Collector Series, I don't know what does.
Related Link: The Tom Family Website
Randy Miller III is an art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.