THE LION’S MOUTH OPENS Image

“And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
And his jaws start closin’ with you underneath.”

Lucy Walker has been making documentaries for over a dozen years. Whether feature or short, she’s always on target. And the many accolades she’s received prove it. While last year’s feature “The Crash Reel” (about the excitement and dangers of snowboarding) didn’t make the Oscar short list, “Waste Land” (2010) an incredibly transformative feature, and her short “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” (2011) both were Academy Award nominees in their respective documentary categories. Her new short, “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” played at Sundance earlier this year and is now part of the “Shorts Program: Time Will Tell” at AFI DOCS.

It tackles Huntington’s Disease, that nasty neurodegenerative inherited disorder. Woody Guthrie had it. The verse at the head of this review was from a five-page poem written by Bob Dylan as a last tribute to the man who was Dylan’s greatest early influence. If one of your parents have/had it, you can perform a genetic test, and that’s where this day-in-the-life film begins. Thumbs up or thumbs down wonders Glasgow-born actress-director Marianne Palka (her father died from Huntington’s), as she prepares her last supper before a meet-up on D-(as in diagnosis)-Day with her UCLA-based neurologist. As guests gather at her apartment, you’ll recognize a few faces: Jason Ritter (her boyfriend) and actor-friends Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel. The mood is upbeat, even if there’s an elephant lurking the proverbial closet. Around the dinner table, prayer and talk remains somber yet upbeat. Food, good craft brews, and lots of love and support are served all around.

As an important part for anyone dealing with the disease, a support network needs to be strong, and that’s quite evident here as the brave and beautiful Marianna floats between denial, curiosity, frustration, and impatience. Walker smartly just parks her camera and zooms in and out on the participants as they talk and/or tear up. At the neurology clinic, we stay privy with a hand-held camera as the reality plays out. And the pronouncement from the doctor, all too quick, too blunt, and too clinical, is traumatic as all hell. Their is no air left in the room.

You’ll probably need a hankie.

This is raw filmmaking at its finest.

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