Perceptive, compassionate docu “Coma” takes a clear-eyed look at four victims of severe brain injury, the determined medicos who care for them and the supportive loved ones who persevere. While unlikely to single-handedly reverse the suddenly volatile fortunes of presenter HBO, this is an affecting, sturdy feather in the cabler’s cap that will resonate far beyond its early July tube preem to fests, international skein sales and ancillary.
Oscar-nommed for “The Farm: Angola, USA” nearly a decade ago, helmer Liz Garbus continues a commendable, socially conscious body of work with Moxie Firecracker shingle producing partner Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) that includes “The Execution of Wanda Jean” and “Girlhood.” “Coma” also draws clear inspiration from the cinema verite work of Frederick Wiseman, particularly “Hospital” and “Near Death,” and the recent, health care-related feature-length work of Canuck icon Allan King, most notably the affecting palliative-care docu “Dying at Grace.”
The first year following a traumatic brain injury is crucial, and at the Center for Head Injuries at the JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J., lead doctors Caroline McCagg and Joseph Giacino race the clock to rehabilitate four sufferers. Thirty-one-year-old sales manager Tom Segars fell from a balcony and has just emerged from a five-week coma, while 19-year-old coed Roxanne “Roxy” Guzman and 26-year-old restaurant worker Al’Khan Edwards were in road accidents. These backstories aren’t explored, despite the bizarre circumstances of the fourth patient, 20-year-old Sean Reilly, described by filmmakers as “assaulted and thrown off a bridge while studying in Europe.”
Garbus has no interest in questions of who’s paying for what, focusing entirely on the delicate dance among doctors and family as the patients progress and face setbacks in about equal measure. Quartet is blessed with fiercely supportive loved ones, though it is the unshakable faith in treatment of Segars’ fiancee Lynda Delorenzo, Reilly’s mother Susan and Guzman’s mom Miriam that takes centerstage.
Tech credits are tops for the form, highlighted by the intuitive camerawork and seamless editing in service of Garbus’ assured narrative voice. Sublime use is made of deep album tracks “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” by Simon & Garfunkel, and the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.”