Not so much harrowing as achingly reflective, “I Am Breathing” follows, with expressive respect, the last year or so in the life of a 33-year-old Scottish architect whose vivacious wife and young son can be of only limited help as he slowly succumbs to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Currently playing a week at New York’s IFC Center before moving to an engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles, the item could find further arthouse engagements on the basis of reverent reviews and numerous previous fest screenings, with lively tube sales and strong specialized ancillary also likely.
Shortly after his 2008 diagnosis with what’s been called the last truly incurable disease of the day, Neil Platt becomes determined to spread the word via a soon-popular blog he writes with maddeningly inaccurate speech-recognition software. He’s an expressive and self-aware fellow, explaining, “I didn’t want to be overshadowed by this.” Expressing regret that he didn’t begin fundraising for disease research earlier in his decline, he later wonders, “Maybe this has all brought out the best in me?”
He’s even able to see the dark humor in the situation, telling a story early on about trying to terminate his cell-phone service (“because I’m dying”) and being offered an extra three months if he doesn’t cancel. It’s the Scottish equivalent of Warren Zevon’s famous quip to David Letterman about how to approach imminent death: “Enjoy every sandwich.”
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At the same time, knowing ALS will rob him of his ability to walk and talk, which it inevitably, inexorably does, he begins assembling a box of mementoes for his son, Oscar. In goes his favorite leather jacket, tie pin, first teddy bear and, in a nice Euro touch, the first lighter he ever bought.
Helmers Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon take nearly too respectful an approach; topics surrounding Platt’s condition left unaddressed include the intricacies of medical insurance and equipment hire, as well as the presence of any religious structure in their lives. Yet the biographical material, including homemovies and a detailed illustration of how Platt met and courted his wife, Louise, keep the viewer engaged.
Through it all, Louise (who has since remarried, is writing a book on her experiences and continues the fundraising crusade) remains attentive and compassionate. There is but a single scene in which she succumbs to her fears, and it is handled tastefully and with aplomb.
Tech package is tidy. Editor Peter Winther inserts lyrical shots of the rural outdoors and print curtains from the room in which Platt sits immobile in his chair — a nice touch that evokes the world as he sees it while composing his posts, surrounded by friends and family. Ethereal score by Kieran Hebden and Jim Sutherland, collectively known as Four Tet, is a strong plus. English subtitles at strategic points do much to ameliorate the Scottish burr.
On June 21, the pic screened internationally in over 200 venues, public and private, in more than 35 countries to mark Global MND/ALS Awareness Day.