One of the most stirring correctives imaginable to the maudlin inspirational narratives often derided as “disability porn,” “The Possibilities Are Endless” details Scottish indie-music darling Edwyn Collins’ struggles to recover from two massive strokes with remarkable artfulness, wit and grace. At times resembling an avant-garde film collage as much as it does a traditional documentary, the pic could prove a stiff challenge for mainstream audiences, with its ambling pace and impressionistic p.o.v., but those who stick with it will find themselves amply rewarded.
Frontman for the storied 1980s post-punk outfit Orange Juice, and solo performer of the ’90s rock radio staple “A Girl Like You,” Collins suffered a pair of cerebral hemorrhages in 2005 that left him in a coma for 10 days. When he emerged, the 45-year-old Collins could no longer use his right hand, sing, read, write or speak more than four phrases: “no,” “yes,” “Grace Maxwell” (his wife’s name), and “the possibilities are endless.”
Miraculously, with Maxwell’s help, Collins relearned how to read, walk and draw, and he gradually redeveloped his singing voice well enough to record two critically acclaimed albums and maintain a moderately active performing career. (He can still finger chords on a guitar, though his wife has to strum the strings for him.)
The film parcels out all the info above at a very leisurely pace. After a brief opening clip of the younger Collins performing on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” years ago, the first 15 minutes of the documentary hardly feature Collins at all, instead offering long sequences of dreamlike first-person shots and gorgeously photographed footage from his ancestral home of Helmsdale, while he and Maxwell discuss the metaphysical terror of Collins’ strokes in voiceovers.
Without being overly obvious about it, directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall have quite cleverly structured the film in a way that mirrors Collins’ recovery, with the perspective growing more lucid, linear and objective as it progresses. Only rarely do the film’s experiments veer toward self-indulgence, and its slow, digressive pace compliments Collins’ halting speech patterns perfectly. (The gulf in class between the filmmaking on display here and that of the filmmakers’ most recent efforts — they produced the concert docu “Katy Perry: Part of Me” — is as wide as the English Channel.)
The docu is also wise enough, and sufficiently attuned to Collins and Maxwell’s caustic Scottish wit, to steer clear of overt sentimentality, even when Collins begins to display such immense progress. “There was no big ‘Eureka!’ moment for me,” Collins notes dryly, and the film never whitewashes the agonizingly slow process of recovery. The depth of Collins and Maxwell’s quiet reverence for one another — illustrated, to a degree, by staged sequences of the couple’s teenage son, William Collins, quietly flirting with a neighborhood girl (Yasmin Paige) — also manages to pack a considerable punch, even if they’re more liable to affectionately bicker than to ostentatiously declare their love oncamera.
Richard Stewart’s photography is thoroughly entrancing, capturing the damp grays of coastal Scotland with a keen eye for texture, while the ambient instrumental score — composed by Collins himself — sees the singer embrace subtle atmospherics in a way that has little precedent in his prior discography.