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Movie Review

Alzheimer’s documentary comes close to ‘Genius’

Director Banker White and his mother, Pam White, in a scene from “The Genius of Marian.”

Banker White

Director Banker White and his mother, Pam White, in a scene from “The Genius of Marian.”

All tales about victims of dementia are tragic, not just for the sufferer but for the loved ones involved. But the story of Dedham resident Pam White, subject of an affecting, lyrical documentary by her son Banker White and co-directed by Anna Fitch, involves an especially cruel irony.

A year after Pam started writing “The Genius of Marian,” a book about her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, the painter Marian Williams Steele, Pam herself was diagnosed with the disease. She was 61. In intimate, diary form, White borrows the title of his mother’s unfinished book to chronicle her battle against the inevitable, and the equally courageous efforts of her husband and children in caring for her. Their daily struggle will resound not only with those who face the same situation, but with all who must someday confront the inevitabilities of illness, loss, and grief.

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More than just a personal memoir, the film aspires to poetry as it intercuts scenes from home movies of Pam as a child and as a young woman with similar scenes from the present day, punctuated with shots of Pam’s mother’s paintings. Mixing the past and present as if from Pam’s increasingly disordered point of view, the film mirrors the decline of her faculties but affirms the persistence of memory and identity.

A beautiful actress and model in her youth, Pam married Ed, the love of her life, and raised three happy, well-adjusted, and successful children. She was generous, kind, smart, and funny. Because of all these virtues, one of her close friends notes ruefully, “she had the furthest to fall.” And indeed it is painful to watch her inexorable deterioration, as Pam’s sunny demeanor dims with confusion, denial, anger, and depression at her diminished capacities. Her plight takes its toll on the family caregivers, too, especially Ed, who takes a leave of absence from his job (in one regard the Whites have an advantage over most of those in similar circumstances, as they are well-to-do) to tend to her increasingly demanding needs. At one point, as he coaxes her onto a boat so they can do something they once enjoyed doing together, he loses his temper. It becomes clear that in trying to preserve her life, he is sacrificing his own.

But when one of the smiles or gestures seen in the old home movies breaks through Pam’s present-day confusion and pain, Ed’s determination makes sense. In a poignant moment, one of Pam’s friends catches herself using the past tense in describing her friend: “I didn’t want to say ‘was,’ ” she says. “Because she still is.”

Though for the most part brutally frank, sometimes, and understandably so, the film might be trying too hard to emphasize the positive. For example, though all Pam’s children would seem genetically at risk for Alzheimer’s, none of them discuss that possibility. To a degree the film resembles the family’s attitude toward Pam’s mother Marian’s art when her Renoiresque canvases gave way to darker, stranger paintings. The more cheerful works, some of them seascapes of her children as toddlers playing on Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, are hanging on the walls, but Banker himself says that those others, relegated to storage, may be Marian’s best. Had he tapped into that kind of darkness a bit more in the film, it might have attained the level of genius — though perhaps at the expense of compassion and humanity.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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