Documentary filmmaker James Ronald Whitney lived just below the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed on September 11, and he immediately grabbed his camera and began taping. The shots of the buildings themselves, though, are easily the least interesting thing about the superb “Telling Nicholas,” which, documenting a ten-day period after the attack, starts out as the story of informing a 7-year old his mother has died but ends up depicting the near melt-down of a family. It’s a heart-wrenching film, genuinely deep in its examination of trauma, grief, and the fissures that divide a family that’s not as conventional as they initially appear.
While looking for pictures of people he knew at one of the big posting sights for the missing, Whitney was immediately drawn to a photograph of Michele Lanza and, sitting on her lap, her son Nicholas. Within 72 hours of the attack, Whitney went out to meet Michele’s family in Tottenville, at the outer reach of Staten Island.
The focus is at this point completely on Nicholas, an adorable, blonde-haired kid who knows something has happened but isn’t sure what. A neighbor is watching the boy in order to keep him away from the television, while Nicholas’ father Robert, a soft-spoken Oklahoma native, is struggling with how to tell his son the circumstances.
The rest of the family, Michele’s mother, father and two sisters, continue to harbor hope that Michele may still be alive, and they play for Whitney the phone message she left for her younger sister Cindy after the first plane hit but before the second.
Gradually, a clearer picture of the family emerges. Michele and Robert were separated, with Robert living in Virginia. Her family has, to be generous, mixed feelings towards Robert, whose financial situation had lead to Michele’s taking the job in Manhattan to begin with, a job she didn’t really want. The initial trauma of the event gives way to anger, blame and guilt, with the most blatant victim being Cindy, who falls into a catatonic state and needs to be treated with anti-psychotic drugs. Michele’s mother, Ethel, still working hard to deny her daughter’s death, is stressed to the limit caring for Nicholas and Cindy’s two children.
Whitney brings in another family as well, the Ahmed family in Brooklyn, devout Muslims. Shabbir Ahmed was a waiter at Windows on the World and died in the attacks. His 16-year-old son Thanbir becomes an eloquent voice in the film, and even develops a bond with Nicholas when Whitney introduces the two.
Whitney is clearly not trying to be a detached observer here. In addition to bringing Thanbir into the picture — in part to blunt the intensity of Michele’s family’s strong anti-Muslim feelings, particularly from Ethel — he also introduces the family to psychologist Gilda Carle, whom the family trusts in part because they’ve seen her on various television talk shows. Carle counsels the family, with a particular focus on helping Robert deal with the inevitable, informing Nicholas that his mother is dead.
While that event forms the climax of the film, Whitney has also delved along the way into the forms of religious extremism at work within this apparently all-American family. Michele’s older sister, who received a correspondence doctorate and lives with a plethora of religious icons in the family basement, claims the attacks were the culmination of prophecy, while also blaming Robert’s evangelical apostolic faith, with a focus on female modesty, for oppressing Michele.
From Aaron Davies’ casual but polished cinematography to Mocean Worker’s sensitively mournful scoring, “Telling Nicholas” is an expert work. Whitney’s own first-person narration helps it along, and the whole endeavor comes off as deeply felt and highly personal, never the slightest bit sensational or exploitative, which in lesser hands might have been a possibility.
Whitney does all he can to give it something of an upbeat ending, and accomplishes that to a degree with Thanbir and Nicholas’s help. He also shows a statistic, that it is thought over 10,000 children lost a parent on September 11th. The overall impact of the film is devastating, and it clearly demonstrates that the residual effects of that event continue to ripple not just outward, but inward too.