Nominally about the extraordinary strength of people caring for the ill, Unconditional also spends equal amounts of time on a compelling but mixed set of topics: the sacrifices of America’s veterans, the pain of Alzheimer’s, and people with little time left on Earth.
It starts in San Francisco with director Richard Lui at the bedside of his father, Stephen, near death from late-stage Alzheimer’s. Richard will be recognizable to many viewers as a news anchor on MSNBC. In flashbacks, he shows us Stephen years earlier, escorted around his neighborhood and chatting cheerily with strangers. However, the dedication already needed to look after him is very apparent. Lui’s mother sleeps on the sofa to guard against potentially harmful excursions, and his activities are frequently risky, such as trying to open tin cans with a fork, which Lui notes with a touch of surprised pride he’s rather good at.
Unconditional then combines this tale with two others. Amy Bushatz, also a journalist and a fellow traveler further down the road of providing care for a husband with a traumatic brain injury, and Luke, who is married to a US Marine diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“While the content is sometimes bleak, the film is compelling for the warts and all honesty of the stories within it.”
While the content is sometimes bleak, the film is compelling for the warts and all honesty of the stories within it. Lui is very candid in documenting his own family’s situation. As he discovers and opens doors to other lives throughout the film, the generosity of these people matches his when sharing their tales. However, while these other narratives are consistent with the theme, their weighting can throw the focus a little (two of the three are military families, and two are dealing with brain injuries). So, the theme of care seems to retreat entirely from time to time, buried beneath other topics. This though is due to the individual charisma of the other participants and Lui’s inquisitive and engaging reporting style.
Some of the elements employed here can be a little confusing, however. Dandelion seeds float across the screen now and then, but their symbolism isn’t really clear. Also, the film opens with a sweet but cryptic quote, which I couldn’t attribute or quite understand.
Unconditional is packed with tragedy, but that is not the message it leaves one with. It succeeds best in showing that supporting each of the profoundly hurting characters is a cast we pray to have the strength to be and that true leadership is imposed upon people rather than earned. You wouldn’t wish the trials in Lui’s film on your worst enemy, but watching them, one is aware of how commonplace this is and how most of us are likely to share these terrible paths in our development at some point.
Unconditional reminds us that life is short and doesn’t provide endless opportunities to get it right, with a cast who most certainly are getting it right as reluctant but encouraging paragons of the best in human kindness. It’s an inspiring film documenting its difficult topic with a lean and unfussy style. The judicious use of footage from a long time period (Lui claims to have been filming for over seven years) does a good job of rooting the narrative in a wealth of relatable detail. As each story develops, one gets a sense of familiarity with the participants, which feels almost breezy when it could so easily have been gloomy or overwhelming.
It’s a brave little documentary on an important subject, and I would urge anyone to watch it.
"…You wouldn’t wish the trials in Lui’s film on your worst enemy..."