Among the many things Selma Blair speaks frankly on in a new documentary about her, her own acting career comes in for brisk treatment. “I never had the hunger to be the best actress I could be,” she says matter-of-factly. She’d have it now, she adds, though she’s not sure her screen career will ever resume. Blair’s tone isn’t sentimental or self-pitying, even if a certain wistfulness survives her candor. But her life is different now, and she sees its purpose differently. Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018, the star of “Cruel Intentions” and “Hellboy” would rather use her profile to raise awareness and understanding of a frequently mischaracterized disease, helping others with MS to feel less alone and agonized in their diagnosis than she once did.
As a stage in that mission, Rachel Fleit’s film “Introducing, Selma Blair” is eye-opening and empathetic — but it’s also intensely moving as a documentary in its own right, enriched by a human subject who appears to learn as much about herself in the course of filming as we do. Acquired for distribution by the Discovery Plus streaming service shortly before its virtual SXSW premiere, “Introducing, Selma Blair” makes good on its oddly punctuated title’s promise to construct a second first impression of a star best known as a wonderfully tart, snappy supporting figure in various millennial multiplex favorites. Fleit teases out human complexities in ways Blair’s acting roles (let alone the glib, invasive lens of celebrity culture) have not. Yet there’s a sense here, too, of Blair being reintroduced to herself, determining who she is after years of feeling, in her words, “less than” — with significant family baggage tangled into the exhaustion, anxiety and insecurity she felt in the years her MS went undiagnosed.
If this sounds like potentially maudlin viewing, Blair’s own irresistible presence ensures it’s not so. Warmly self-aware and self-deprecating, with a mordant sense of humor that cuts through even at her lowest points, she resists speaking in PR-schooled soundbites or airy self-help platitudes — a crucial virtue when discussing an autoimmune disease that preys on the brain and the spine, and shouldn’t be soft-soaped in its painful, debilitating effects. “This is what happens that I don’t want people to see,” Blair says during one direct-to-camera interview, as her comfort dog wanders off and her hitherto fluid speech patterns immediately falter and stall, her body overwhelmed by surrounding stimuli. Yet she does, ultimately, want this seen. The camera keeps rolling. She forces the words out.
“Introducing, Selma Blair” is hard to watch in such moments, as it is in scenes from the actor’s own cellphone video diary, as she lies weeping and bedbound, her body a frozen quiver of pain. It should be hard, after all: Watching her suffering is scarcely as challenging as enduring it. Fleit’s film shies away neither from the rigors of the disease nor its treatment. Its second half is largely given over to the challenging stem cell transplant Blair undergoes over several weeks in a Chicago hospital, woefully far from her Studio City home and her adored young son Arthur. The stages of operation and recuperation are chronicled in methodical detail, with little of the rosy catharsis that assorted medical dramas have led us to expect in such situations. Blair’s doctors refuse the word “cure,” while her own physical progress is met with complicating caveats; no two experiences of MS, we are reminded, are exactly the same.
Yet the documentary’s most rewarding moments emerge from its everyday footage of Blair simply living through it, as if she has any other choice: climbing stairs on all fours to maintain her balance, playing makeshift dodgeball with Arthur, or amusing herself (and sending up her increasingly hermetic lifestyle) by dressing up as Norma Desmond for an interview. (“Disabled people like to have fun too,” she shrugs.) Each moment of fleeting levity is countered by one of more wounded introspection, many concerning her troubled relationship with her mother, whose own health is failing while Blair goes through the wars. Their simultaneous suffering brings Blair to a kind of peace on the matter (“It’s not because she’s dying, but because I felt like I died”); in turn, her own motherhood, and how she’d be remembered by her son should the worst happen, comes in for nervy discussion.
Such blunt confessional material is rare in celebrity studies, and by no means standard in medical memoirs either: Blair and the filmmakers alike may find pockets of hope and humor in her situation, but there’s minimal reliance on smiling-through-the-tears sentiment here. Blair’s outlook is unusual enough to color the doc’s otherwise conventionally smooth construction, as unruly feeling occasionally spills out and scratches a sympathetic, softly framed portrait. That’s as it should be. At several points in the film, Blair surveys her past magazine covers with a critical eye, sneering at her poorly Photoshopped image in a group portrait for Interview (“No one’s gonna print Nicole [Kidman] too small”), laughing off a wan Seventeen image that betrays a youthful lack of confidence, and reveling in all-out glamor shoot for Italian Vogue.
But it’s a recent People cover, published since her diagnosis, that she expects to be remembered by: It’s a pleasant, brightly lit portrait, in a which she wears a no-fuss denim dress and holds her walking cane unapologetically in the foreground. This is Selma Blair as she’s now happy to be seen: Equal parts tender and tough-minded, Fleit’s excellent doc provides a suitable introduction.