×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hot Docs Film Review: ‘Exit Music’

Cameron Mullenneaux's toughly moving study of a cystic fibrosis patient's final months thoughtfully avoids the mawkish pitfalls of its subject.

Director:
Cameron Mullenneaux
With:
Ethan Rice, Ed Rice, Edith Rice, Devlin Rice, Ursula McVeigh.

1 hour 12 minutes

Official Site: http://www.exitmusicfilm.com

The original title for “Exit Music,” changed at the eleventh hour ahead of its world premiere in Hot Docs, was “How Do You Feel About Dying,” and you can see why the switch was made: “Dying” is not, as a rule, a word that packs ’em into the aisles. Yet that initial question, which can be banal or bluntly confrontational depending on the tone in which it is asked, encapsulates the blend of frankness and delicacy that distinguishes Cameron Mullenneaux’s wrenching documentary study of a young cystic fibrosis patient’s final months.

28-year-old Ethan Rice drily answers it himself in the film’s opening minutes: “I feel sad,” he says with ironic languor, poking fun at the one-dimensional solemnity with which stories like his are usually told. The sadness goes without saying, but he feels much else besides: anger, exhaustion and impatience, with bursts of amusement and creative inspiration in between. “Exit Music” covers the spectrum with grace, good humor and no emotional filter: It’s an unabashed tear-jerker that earns its saltwater through candor rather than undue manipulation. An audience favorite at Hot Docs, it should travel the docfest circuit extensively; distribution, particularly through streaming channels, should follow in due course.

A bright, funny, inventive young man who has never been able to move out of his family home in upstate New York, Ethan has known most of his life that he’s going to die sooner rather than later, as the incurable genetic illness with which he was born gradually collapses his respiratory system. If living under that shadow has made him accepting of his fate, it’s also caused him frustration as he’s continued to outlive doctors’ prognoses — which once forecast death in infancy — through the years. Now in his late twenties, in constant pain and with his inability to live independently more pointed in adulthood, is he fighting to live or waiting to die? Ethan distracts himself from such brooding concerns with short-term art projects: He’s a composer and a deft stop-motion animator, and his own witty short films punctuate the documentary as sporadic, vibrant releases from a claustrophobic reality — just as they function in their creator’s own life.

Ethan is blessed with a palliative doctor who understands his existential quandary: “People are living with life-threatening illnesses, but when are they dying?” she asks matter-of-factly. It’s both unsurprising and wholly understandable that his doting parents and full-time carers, Ed and Edith, aren’t able to take quite such a philosophical view of the situation. The closer their son comes to dictating the time and terms of his death, the harder it grows for them to accept its inevitability.

In particular, the struggle for Ed, a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam veteran with an inordinate history of family tragedy, to make peace with yet another unhappy ending becomes a key arc of “Exit Music,” as the film tenderly traces a tangle of familial micro-conflicts born entirely out of love. Shooting discreetly, often on grainy video that compounds the sense of off-the-cuff closeness, Mullenneaux observes the family at such close quarters that it’s occasionally hard to imagine a camera being in the room at all. Some footage, meanwhile, is shot by Ed, and the intensified intimacy of this material is felt.

That “Exit Music,” edited with unfussy, time-tracking economy by Nels Bangerter (“Cameraperson”) and Amy Foote (“The Work”), avoids feeling uncomfortable or exploitative is testament to the evident rapport between the director and her subject, who embraces the film as a chance to leave a larger mark on the world, and to control the shortened narrative of his life — right down to the music and montage choices he requests to mark the end. The film’s closing sequences are every bit as devastating as expected, yet “Exit Music” shoots for some bittersweet hope amid the sadness: that accepting death needn’t always be an act of defeat.

Hot Docs Film Review: 'Exit Music'

Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (International Spectrum), April 27, 2018. Running time: 72 MIN. (Original title: "How Do You Feel About Dying")

Production: A Pony Express Films production in association with ITVS. (International sales: Pony Express Films, San Francisco.) Producers: Cameron Mullenneaux, Linda Davis Garkow. Executive producer: Sally Jo Fifer.

Crew: Director, camera (color): Cameron Mullenneaux. Editors: Nels Bangerter, Amy Foote. Music: Ethan Rice.

With: Ethan Rice, Ed Rice, Edith Rice, Devlin Rice, Ursula McVeigh.

More Film

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content