The old adage that no great movie is too long applies in spades to “A Lion in the House,” an astonishing four-hour documentary that takes on a very difficult subject — children with cancer — and renders it with unflinching intimacy, uncommon compassion and, above all, a profound respect for the eternal enigma that is the human body. The result of six years of work by husband-and-wife filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert — themselves the parents of a teenage cancer survivor — this harrowing, but immensely rewarding human-scaled epic should see significant post-Sundance fest exposure before making its June 21 television premiere as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series.
Very much cut from the classical, institutional docu cloth of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King, “A Lion in the House” follows five patients from the pediatric cancer ward of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (a.k.a. Ward 5A) as they navigate their diseases’ unpredictable twists of fate and try to go on with the business of just being kids.
Pic’s first half introduces three case studies: Tim Woods, a wide-eyed, fast-talking 15-year-old with Hodgkins lymphoma; baby-faced 7-year-old Leukemia patient Alex Lougheed; and stoic Justin Ashcraft, who has been waging his own battle against Leukemia for 10 of his 18 years and who, as the film begins, has just suffered a relapse.
Bognar and Reichert take full advantage of the film’s large canvas to also focus on the parents, siblings, doctors and nurses who comprise each patient’s extended family.
Indeed, for much of its first two hours, “A Lion in the House” bristles with a tension to rival any of TV’s highly-rated medical dramas, as Bognar and Reichert reveal the extent to which pediatric cancer patients are party to clinical trials and experimental treatments, and how much of the cutting-edge research is taking place in facilities like Cincinnati Children’s. But unlike the average episode of “House” or “ER,” pic makes it clear from early on that miracle cures occur far less frequently in real life than in Hollywood.
Before we’ve even made it to intermission, little Alex has undergone two years of arduous treatments, suffered a relapse, has a bone marrow transplant and suffered another relapse. Meanwhile, Justin’s body continues to reject new therapies as quickly as his doctors can come up with them.
Pic’s second half, while introducing two additional subjects — 11-year-old non-Hodgkins lymphoma patient Al Fields and 9-year-old Leukemia patient Jen Moore — trades the suspense of the opening segments for a zen-like sense of acceptance as we, like the families on screen, come to terms with the realization that not all of these brave young souls will still be with us at the end of hour four. We watch parents forced to confront impossible decisions between what can be done — including treatments whose side effects are as or more debilitating than the cancer itself — and what should be done.
And we see how, despite the best efforts of some to make time stand still, life nevertheless goes on. This is tough viewing to be sure, but Bognar and Reichert have assembled such a remarkable series of profiles in courage, and in the human will to live, that pic’s cumulative effect is nothing short of humbling, cathartic and even euphoric.
Image and sound recording are both top-notch by vid-shot docu standards, while the skill with which Bognar and a team of editors weave pic’s disparate story strands together is highly impressive. Frequent Victor Nunez collaborator Charles Engstron composed pic’s unobtrusive, but moving original score.