Thank You for Playing
Kino // Unrated // $29.95 // January 2, 2018
Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 15, 2018
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Graphical Version
Ryan and Amy Green, sweethearts since they were in their teens, are now married and have a big family. Their third son, Joel, however, has been diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer. Ryan, a video game designer, begins pouring his energy into developing a video game, called That Dragon, Cancer, which serves as a heightened, stylized, but deeply autobiographical account of the entire family's journey dealing with Joel's illness. Along the way, directors David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Warrall chronicle the ups and downs of the experience, as yet a further document of Joel's tragically brief life.

Thank You For Playing is a wildly uneven documentary about a deeply sympathetic story. Looking at the film (and the game) simply as a vehicle to illustrate the ways the Greens cope with Joel's illness, this is a moving and uniquely tragic story about the ways humans use art to communicate. As a movie, Osit and Zouhali-Warrall's film leaves something to be desired, failing (unsurprisingly) to find much of a structure in the unpredictable series of treatments and struggles the family encounter over the two years the documentarians were present.

It would be natural to expect the film to contain a number of interviews with both Ryan and Amy talking about finding out about Joel's cancer, the genesis of the game, and explanations of the scenes contained within it, but perhaps both parents and the filmmakers felt these things were already best expressed in Ryan and Amy's personal art (both the game, and their book, He's Not Dead Yet). Instead, sit-down interviews are sporadic, with the film consisting mostly of fly-on-the-wall footage where the subjects interact with the documentarians at random. These sequences include recording sessions for the game, development of the occasional level, various experimental treatments, and a scene where Ryan brings the game to Seattle's PAX convention.

During these sequences, Osit and Zouhali-Warrall capture some choice moments -- Ryan and Amy reading a particularly harsh comment on an interview they did about the game, Ryan recording voice-over for a sequence with his other two boys, chatter from some of the other developers on the stress of working on the project, and of course, plenty of footage of Joel himself, which allows the viewer to see how Ryan incorporates his son's personality into his project. On the other hand, some notable stones remain unturned -- there are brief references to the family's faith that are never expounded on, and no reference at all to the family's financial or employment situation. In preparing to write the review, an article came up noting that Ryan had staked the future of his Christian video game company on the success of the game. Perhaps the filmmakers felt this created an artificial narrative in which some sort of catharsis would come from the game being a hit, but it feels like a huge omission.

From an editing standpoint, it hardly feels as if two years pass during the film, despite Ryan and Amy both talking about how long Joel has survived past his initial prognosis, and the eventual deterioration of his condition. Osit and Zouhali-Warrall include plenty of footage from the game itself, but some of it has a tendency to feel "incomplete" as an experience, because of course, the game is meant to be played. The film is certainly emotional, especially when literally capturing the emotions of its participants on-screen -- there's no question that viewers will be moved by it. Whether or not they might be just as moved experiencing Ryan and Amy's struggle from their own perspective, through their own work, is another story.

Kino Lorber's art for Thank You For Playing is pretty straighforward, presenting the Ryan and Joel model on a pink backdrop, with Joel rendered as a colorless wireframe figure rather than the stylized design of the characters in the finished game. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, this is a pretty no-frills presentation. The image is basically clean and colors appear basically accurate, although the cameras sometimes blow out whites and there is banding from time to time during the game segments (hard to tell whether this is the disc unable to present the game sequences without banding, or if the game sequences themselves have banding). Sound is hit-and-miss in terms of how clear it is, but any distortion or muddled audio appears to be rooted in the original recording and not the audio track on the disc. To be clear, I never had any trouble understanding anything that was being said, just that the quality is not always particularly sharp. No captions or subtitles are offered.

The Extras
Two deleted scenes (2:23, 3:30) provide some insight into the park sequence that appears at the end of the movie, and reveals another session of Ryan recording voice-over for the game.

An original theatrical trailer is also included.

For non-gamers just interested in hearing about Ryan's video game and Joel's story, Thank You For Playing is a perfectly effective experience. However, the root of that effectiveness lies more in the natural human interest of Ryan's artistic choice to create That Dragon, Cancer than in the filmmaking itself. Recommended.

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