Filmmaker and breast cancer survivor Lori Benson's inspiring, empowering short documentary won't move you to tears, as you might expect, but it will open your eyes to what women who suffer from this disease are going through. It's an assured, smartly assembled primer on a world no-one wants to enter, but one that far too many people experience. At under 35 minutes in length, it's also way less affecting a document than you'd imagine, all the more so because though it's an intimate portrait, Benson somehow manages to keep emotional impact at arm's length.
As a new mom, Benson is less-than-thrilled with an abrupt diagnosis of breast cancer. As an aspiring filmmaker, she and her friends camera-up and begin documenting the journey. Her First Run Features documentary is the award-winning result; it (as the DVD box attests) mixes 'verite footage with home videos and family photographs' to provide a glimpse into a harrowing experience. Benson doesn't stint on the uncomfortable or private details. An emotional healing circle displays her friends' and family's raw emotions, drainage tubes and plastic bags outline raw processes, nude portraits starkly reveal what is lost, and grim statistics cap things off. That is until Benson closes her account with images of poetic hope.
However, the strong, stoic, sometimes acerbic New Yorker sublimates her own emotion so well that little comes through to the viewer. This aspect, in concert with a short run time, turns what might have been an emotional powerhouse into a professionally distanced summation. The filmmaker herself notes on-camera how she hasn't cried during the ordeal - only once does she let herself go - lending Dear Talula an air of a truncated survivor's manual. I'll admit, however, that it's refreshing to watch a medical documentary of this sort that doesn't target the maudlin by default. Furthermore, this unblinking, unsentimental (well, not too-sentimental) effort is probably just the thing needed for women facing breast cancer - presumptively Benson's target audience.
With no moments allowed to stay past their welcome, Dear Talula whips right along, making Benson's stressful journey one of just-intimated strength, forthrightness and humor. And these are all things women (and their support circles) facing breast cancer will crave. Dear Talula is probably the first thing someone facing this diagnosis should watch. Despite the inclusion of early, touching scenes of Benson's infant daughter, those expecting a three-hankie, in-depth analysis of breast cancer or Benson's emotional life will leave nonplused. In Benson's documentary world, there's little time for emotional processing, there's precious little room for weeping; and, skirting those issues, this realistic, solid documentary seems to lack that ineffable something. Just a touch is missing.