As much a showcase for its subject’s filmmaking chops as a portrait of his now decade-long struggle with ALS, “TransFatty Lives” is an unusually playful and emotionally involving first-person chronicle of serious illness. An audience-award winner at several fests including Tribeca, it opened theatrically in Los Angeles Nov. 20, simultaneous with on-demand release; a New York theatrical engagement follows on Dec. 25. Patrick Sean O’Brien’s feature would make a great introduction to the subject for younger audiences who wouldn’t normally seek out such material, though its viability in some educational and broadcast avenues may be constrained by the same salty humor that would help reel in those prospective viewers.
O’Brien was carving out a niche for himself as New York DJ, filmmaker and Internet personality TransFatty when neuromuscular irregularities led to his being diagnosed with ALS in 2005, at age 30. His motor skills and speech rapidly compromised, he decides, “You might as well go with it and stay positive,” noting that “even thugs” treat him nicely now that he’s in a wheelchair. Forced to move out of the city to be closer to family in Maryland, he nonetheless continues “making a sort of art project out of this disease” (as a local TV reporter puts it), involving everyone within reach in prankish videos and other projects. (At one point this includes staging a surgical-scrubs-based “fashion show” at a hospital where he’s a frequent patient.)
Nevertheless, his degenerating faculties can’t always be a matter of levity, as in one sequence where we see the anxiety and manpower expended in the not-so-simple task of having him take a shower. Later he has to decide whether to give up the ghost or accept going forward with a feeding tube, then a ventilator as he loses the ability to swallow and breathe independently.
Amid all this, improbably, he acquires a girlfriend, and she becomes pregnant, providing one powerful reason to remain alive. At the end, now ensconced in a dedicated ALS residence facility, he’s still letting his freak flag fly — doing the ice-bucket challenge on camera, rocking a mohawk, and saying (via Stephen Hawking-style electronic text-to-speech voice): “Thank God I still have my mind, it’s the only thing left I can control.”
That shower sequence and a handful of other moments aside, one doesn’t get much sense of how Patrick’s debilitation impacts his family and other loved ones. Nor is there any real discussion of what happened between them when the mother of his son, Laura Silverthorn, moves far away to Florida with the baby. O’Brien provides a warts-and-all self-portrait on some levels, yet omits seemingly important intel on others, perhaps partly to keep his own voice the film’s near-exclusive one. (“TransFatty Lives” is framed as a sort of video letter to his child, explaining who long-distance daddy is — or was, whenever that becomes the reality of a disease whose original life-expectancy prognosis the director has already survived by several years.)
While such choices might seem simply evasive in a different movie, here they’re acceptable enough because O’Brien is so clearly determined to remain an entertainer: In almost any given situation, he prefers emphasizing absurdist, sometimes good-naturedly juvenile humor over sentimentality or somber introspection.
“TransFatty Lives” largely retains the brash, colorful, jokey tenor of his short films (from as early as 1995), which we glimpse in excerpt here. It’s got the aesthetic of a pop-culture collage, the imaginative packaging making room for kitschy archival materials, a stretch of black-and-white, and diverse soundtrack elements including several cuts by TransFatty himself. He apparently dictated instructions to editors (Lasse Jarvi is credited as the principal one) using the movements of his pupils, as he can no longer manually type, and the freewheeling editorial style highlights the expert assembly.