Aiming to call attention to the lingering negative effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, on adult health, “Resilience” seeks to present potentially abstruse scientific findings in an accessible manner — something it does without ever making for particularly compelling viewing. Directed by James Redford, son of Robert, this hourlong outreach documentary is designed mainly to spread a message, and should be aided in that goal by a pickup from Brainstorm Media, which acquired North American rights. (The distributor also took Redford’s companion film, “Paper Tigers,” which concerns an alternative high school that experimented with its disciplinary policies, for DVD and digital release.) Those who already have a keen interest in the subject would be better off racing to the New England Journal of Medicine than to a theater.
Subtitled “The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope,” “Resilience” begins by focusing on the research of Robert Anda, an epidemiologist who has worked with the Centers for Disease Control, and Vincent Felitti, the former chief of preventive medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. Their findings — that certain risk factors, such as growing up around physical, sexual or substance abuse, have a strong correlation with major health problems in adulthood — may seem intuitive. Throughout, “Resilience” attempts to illustrate the gravity of this strain of study with on-screen text showing percentages and comparative life expectancies.
The film also makes some effort to explain the likely causal factors of why traumas in childhood, even barely remembered ones, may have lasting effects. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, describes what he calls “toxic stress”: A child who grows up around a volatile adult can’t be expected to develop impulse control, he says; a child who grows up in a violent neighborhood can’t be expected to focus his or her attention. Earlier, a striking animated sequence shows how some anxiety is helpful: If you’re about to be hit by a truck, adrenaline helps you to jump. But if you grow up feeling like you’re constantly about to be hit by a truck, the chronic feeling of being on-edge takes a toll on the body.
The upshot is not so much that these findings are surprising, but that addressing adverse childhood experiences early can lead to improvements in preventive medicine. Much of the film focuses on Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, who was drawn to addressing youth risk factors after observing the poor health of children who grew up in the city’s disadvantaged Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.
On the other coast, Redford visits a clinic in New Haven and a nearby elementary school, where a teacher plays a sort of game called “Miss Kendra’s List” in attempt to elicit responses from children about their lives at home. The solutions to childhood stress proposed here aren’t necessarily profound; in many cases, the film argues, it’s simply a matter of providing better parenting and teaching.
Surely there are more statistical complexities and economic issues than the short presentation allows for. As a movie, rather than as a public-service announcement geared for health classes, school assemblies and civic groups, “Resilience” is basically a bust, a standard rundown of talking heads, emotional counseling sessions (in which subjects seem oblivious to the camera) and a closing exhortation inviting viewers to learn more. Sundance may provide a prominent showcase for the film, but at a festival that ostensibly looks to expand perspectives on what documentaries can do, this selection is an odd fit.