Nicole Conn, whose 1992 romance “Claire of the Moon” was a considerable hit with lesbian audiences — although primarily due to lack of competition rather than merit — is back with the very different, nonfiction “Little Man.” Potent docu chronicles the first two years of a baby boy who was born by C-section 100 days early and was given scant survival odds. Pic can be taken as either inspirational or cautionary, but either way rivets attention on the efforts of both medical science and Conn herself to keep the little guy alive. Fest, specialized broadcast and educational play are signaled.
When helmer and her domestic partner Gwen decide to have a second child — they already have the delightful preschool-aged Gabrielle — circumstances necessitate the use of a surrogate carrier who, we’re told, seriously misrepresents her health. (This woman is glimpsed, but unfortunately declined or wasn’t allowed to speak on-camera.)
Ultrasound soon reveals the fetus is way behind schedule in development. All concerned are advised to terminate the pregnancy, given the risk to the carrier and the extreme likelihood of the child’s emerging dead or severely impaired.
Conn alone insists on its survival, eventually spending virtually all waking hours at the hospital’s Neo-Natal Intensive Care Center. There, tiny preemie Nicholas spends his first months hovering at death’s door in an incubator and on a respirator. He still requires IV feeding (plus round-the-clock home nurses) even after he’s allowed to go home.
Exhausting care regimen takes its toll on Nicole’s relationships with her daughter and mate, admitting at one point “We are now living the train wreck Gwen predicted.” Two years on, Nicky’s periods of improved health still are regularly broken by reprised and new crises (including seizures, hearing loss and possible brain damage); his long-term prognosis remains uncertain.
There’s no question that helmer’s commitment to the tot is formidable, even if at times she seems over-willing to let pic cast her as its “passionate, mercurial” (as she’s described at one point) heroine. Occasionally, docu’s very slick style borders on tabloid-TV sob-sisterdom. But intensity of the subject matter (and medical procedures graphically shown) always pulls it back to terra firma.
Various hospital personnel, specialists, and close friends offer commentary that’s sometimes emotional, but more often diplomatic. It’s up to the viewer to weigh whether keeping Nicholas — many times Conn and others were urged to “let him go” — alive was a selfless or selfish act. Advanced technologies now allow hitherto doomed children to survive (if often only that) in a “world of manufactured disability.” But is it a life they will view as gift or curse?
Editing is well-crafted package’s outstanding element, as it compacts what must have been a huge quantity of raw footage into two crisp, engrossing, head-long yet never hectic hours.