Film at its best has the power to engage us emotionally and spiritually. It can make us think and feel, and it can resonate deeply within our souls, reminding us what it means to be human. When a film is truly great, instead of bringing about little more than Pavlovian responses to song cues and other shameless manipulations, it ignites the humanity that has been lulled into dormancy by cynicism and sensory overload and the nagging notion of our own insignificance. And that is what makes the documentary Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life not only a great film, but the best film of 2007. Not only does DGW make you think and feel, it serves as a reminder that we, as human beings, have a capacity for greatness that can't be bound by the limitations of the physical world.
Logan Smalley's documentary is a collective labor of love, put together by a dedicated group of people committed to changing the world. At the center of Smalley's film is 15-year-old Darius Weems, a gregarious young man from Athens, Ga., confined to a wheelchair by Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Having already lost his older brother Mario to DMD, Darius and his friends want to educate the world, in hopes that increased awareness will lead to a cure for the terminal disease. DMD, the most common of all forms of muscular dystrophies, is a genetic disease, prevalent among men, that affects approximately 1 in 3,500 boys. Because the gene for DMD is carried on the X chromosome, girls won't manifest symptoms of the disease unless both X chromosomes are infected. Therefore, cases of girls with DMD are extremely rare. Symptoms generally begin before age 5, characterized by muscle weakness that can make children appear clumsy or uncoordinated. To the untrained eye, a child with early-stage DMD does not look much different from any other klutzy kid who gets picked last for sports teams. But as the disease begins to take over the body, muscles continue to weaken and eventually waste, confining most, like Weems, to wheelchairs before the age of 12.
When most teenagers are begging their parents for keys to the car, teens with DMD are forced to rely on wheelchairs that can cost upward of $20,000. By the time a kid with DMD is a teen, it's likely his muscles will have deteriorated to the point where he can no longer dress himself, or take a shower without being lifted into the tub by a parent or caregiver. Eventually, DMD will affect the ability of Weems' heart and lungs to function. With no known cure, his life--and the lives of all with the disease--will be cut dramatically short. Most DMD sufferers won't live past their 20s.
Despite the subject matter, Darius Goes West is not a depressing, disease-of-the-week movie. In fact, if anything, the film is an amazing celebration of life. With friend-turned-filmmaker Logan Smalley acting as director, Weems and the rest of the documentary crew (many of which were counselors at a summer muscular dystrophy camp Weems attended) set out on a cross-country road trip from Georgia to California. Every stop along the way--from the bayous of Louisiana to the Grand Canyon--is a new adventure for Weems. At the beach in Florida, he sees the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in his life. When he's carried into the surf by his friends, the water holds Weems up, allowing him to stand for the first time in nearly four years.
The ultimate destination of Weems and his posse is Los Angeles, where they hope to persuade MTV's Pimp My Ride to customize the young man's electric wheelchair. More than just a silly dream of a teenage boy and his friends, the real goal is to make the millions of viewers of Pimp My Ride aware of the No. 1 genetic killer of young people in the world. For years, the Jerry Lewis-hosted Muscular Dystrophy Association of America telethons helped educate the world about the disease. But as Weems and his friends stump people on the streets of New Orleans by asking who Jerry Lewis is, the documentary proves that making people aware of DMD and the other 30-plus types of muscular dystrophy is a never-ending battle with an outdated strategy.
Getting onto Pimp My Ride and educating the younger generation may have been the primary goal of the documentary's cast and crew, but what they accomplished was something even more profound. Darius Goes West is a portrait of the good that can exist in people. The cross-country trek chronicled by Smalley is not just the journey of Weems, but of the other 10 young men who piled into an RV to serve as crew members, caregivers and friends. Including Weems, over half of the documentary team was under the age of 20, including Smalley's younger brother Ben, 18. The oldest person on the crew was Daniel Epting, 24. The group not only handled the camera and sound equipment, they cared for Weems, helping him with day-to-day tasks like using the bathroom.
Every day we are bombarded with news that ranges from the tragic to the trivial. If our souls are not being battered by the horrors of war in Iraq or the destruction of New Orleans, our intellect is being eroded by American Idol. Even MTV, which prompted Generation X to speak out against apartheid in South Africa, fight famine in Ethiopia and rock the vote in America throughout the 1980s and '90s, has given way to an endless barrage of reality shows that have little to do with reality. Twenty years ago MTV was planting the seeds of revolution in the minds of suburban youth. Now it is a corporate dope dealer slinging cathode-ray opiates that keep young people vapid and informed of little of merit.
But the power to change the world never really existed in MTV or the network news. Those were just outlets to report about the people in the streets working to make the world a better place. The power has always been in the hands of people like Logan Smalley, Darius Weems and the rest of the Darius Goes West crew. With great intentions and nobility they thought getting onto Pimp My Ride would make a difference, and they documented what they did. But even MTV could not do what Darius Goes West does, and that is capture a sense of true humanity. Ultimately, the documentary is not about getting Darius' wheelchair pimped out. It is about people taking the time to genuinely care for one another and not giving in to the obstacles life throws your way. "The first time I sat down in this world is the last time I sat down in this world," says Weems in the film. "I was smiling that day and I'll be smiling when I leave. Because when I die, folks ain't gonna say, 'Darius is gone,' they're going to say, 'Darius went West.'"
Darius Goes West is presented in widescreen format. The picture quality is very good, with a clean image transfer.
Darius Goes West is presented in stereo. The sound levels are very good, with a solid, consistent mix throughout.
A Q&A (17 min.) with several of the crew members, including Darius and Logan, offers insight into the production process, as well as what people are currently doing with their lives. This is a great bonus feature, and helps goes a long way show that the friendship seen in the film is not just a show being presented for the camera. The disc promises that more bonus features will be available on the website.
This is one of the most life-affirming films you will ever see. Buy a copy for yourself, and a copy for someone you care about. For more information on Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life, go to www.dariusgoeswest.com.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]