Imagine Judge Katie Herrell's suprise that this touching documentary had nothing to do with Arichie or Edith Bunker.
Our review of In the Family (2011) (Blu-ray), published July 14th, 2013, is also available.
How Much Do You Sacrifice to Survive?
The concept is stunning: facing a high risk of cancer, filmmaker Joanna Rudnick must decide whether to remove her breasts and ovaries before symptom one. The execution of that choice on film is less stunning: campy camera-on-face confessions spliced with animated genes and token artistic stills results in a muddling of this devastating topic.
Facts of the Case
Joanna Rudnick is 27 when she learns she has a genetic mutation that predisposes her to the cancers that afflicted many of the women in her family. Her options are seemingly black and white—remove her breasts and ovaries and significantly reduce her cancer chances or take the path of constant vigilance and testing and wait for the seemingly inevitable to arrive or not. Throughout In the Family, Rudnick weighs her options by interviewing other women in her same position and those who surround her who will be personally affected by those decisions.
Of course, nothing is black and white when it involves your health, your life, your future, and your present. Rudnick wants to have children someday but has not yet found her life partner. The prospect of undergoing major surgery for something that is not definite is also terrifying. During In the Family, Rudnick grapples—amazingly succinctly and honestly—with these unfair options. As the film begins, she has chosen the path of vigilance and testing, more so because the alternative is too daunting and overwhelming at her young age.
The movie begins rather haphazardly with Rudnick and a new beau mugging for the camera. It is a questionable opening sequence, as it is not immediately clear how Jimmy and Joanna's budding relationship is the jumping off point for a film about genetic mutations. While Jimmy's role becomes abundantly clear as the film progresses, his place feels like an unfortunately timed accident, as he's thrust repeatedly into un-winable situations made more complex—and aggravating—by the constant presence of a video camera. In the special feature "Where are They Now?"—a genial, musical mention of the main characters life status a year after filming concludes—there is no mention of Jimmy.
There are three sort of spheres to this movie. The first is Rudnick's personal grappling with her diagnosis and life, which includes her relationship with Jimmy. This portion is filled with video diary-like entries shot smooshed on the sofa with the camera uncomfortably close to either her own or Jimmy's face. While this is an intimate way to reveal late-night truths, it also gives the film an amateurish, home-movie quality.
The second sphere is Rudnick learning more about her mutation and options, by meeting with similarly afflicted women and families and through scenes with doctors and genetic experts. This is the strongest portion of the film as the families and women Rudnick interviews are immensely different yet unified by their scary diagnosis.
The women are candid and humorous, honest and sanguine, as they open up a very dark place in their lives to the prying eyes of Rudnick and her potential audience. It isn't often in documentaries that you see the main character overtly change their mind about something or that you can see a documentary effectively teach and dispense valuable knowledgeable in almost real time. But, in this film, the transmission of ideas is overt, and the filmmaker who was once avidly against surgery begins to see the merits to the surgical option.
That is because Rudnick leaves no rock unturned, when it comes to seeking guidance. She meets with many doctors and genetic experts, and the film doesn't gloss over the technicalities of her mutation. In one scene, a child-like animation of gene mutation is used to explain Rudnick's condition and her chances of survival. While this clearly explains something that otherwise would be terribly confusing, the sudden insertion of animation into a very adult film—a convention that is never repeated—is a bit incongruous with the rest of the piece. The sequence would have made a wonderful special feature. Instead the extra genetic offerings on the DVD include links, contact numbers, and PDFs. These static options strike me as a poor use of a dynamic medium.
There are also several artistic transition shots—shots which I can't even fully explain because they bear little resemblance to and don't fit in with the rest of the film. While meritable on their own, within In the Family they are just another technique that takes the story away from its educational, straight-forward core.
The third sphere, which given the title you would think would be the main sphere, is Rudnick's interaction with her family. This mainly consists of dinner table interviews with her mother and sister, as well as recalling the time Rudnick and her mother learned of her genetic diagnosis. This sphere is actually the most limited, as a majority of the time is spent focusing on Rudnick's internal problems and external search for what to do. I'd imagine Rudnick relied heavily on her family during this time period, but that emotional leaning is given little screen time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nothing—not the mishmash of camera techniques, the random insertion of animation, or an attempt at artistry—can negate the fact that this documentary teaches, enlightens, persuades, and persists. Many documentaries conclude with the viewer saying, "That was interesting, but so what?" While this film certainly can't answer all questions regarding gene mutations, it does bring some sense of clarity to Rudnick's search for answers.
For someone facing the same uncertainties as Rudnick, or someone simply interested in learning about this mutation, this film is worth seeing, important even.
There isn't a Guilty or Not Guilty to be found with this film. It's all about personal choice.
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