4 June 2014 | ale_fish
Quietly affecting drama of emotional truth
Having lived through a family experience of terminal illness, I was not looking forward to watching this film. Fiction often seems trite and forced when you've actually dealt with the reality, particularly a devastating one. However, 'I'm Still Here' (2013) neatly sidesteps all the tiresome 'Hollywood' grandstanding that is synonymous with the subject matter and delivers instead a truthful and telling depiction of the struggles of Matt, a young man struck down by a lingering and potentially fatal disease.
The strength and authenticity of the film lies in its grounded approach; a willingness to embrace the mundane and common place aspects of the situation. There are no silly 'bucket list' activities; just regular trips to the hospital, awkward 'self-help' group sessions and a few snatched moments of happiness as the clock begins running out. In less adroit hands, this could all have been a little on the dull side but writer-director Kris Smith and a largely unknown cast pull the audience in slowly but surely and, by the climax, you are fully invested in both story and characters.
It always seems a little unfair to single out individual performances from a fine ensemble but it's very hard not to highlight a few. Obviously, a lot of the heavy lifting falls to Dan Burman as Matt and he proves more than capable of shouldering the responsibility. Interactions with his family are painfully convincing and, although the psychology of a broken home leading to emotional detachment is hardly new territory, Burman really nails it, never mining a scene for audience sympathy or making his emotional journey too great to strain credibility. Joanna Pope is also note perfect as his fussy mother and Jack Beresford scores in an all too-brief appearance as younger brother, Rob. Elsewhere, Lucy Collins is truly outstanding as a charismatic hospital patient (we'd be talking awards if this was Hollywood) and Marie Wilson inhabits the character of the downtrodden woman next door with an authenticity that informs her every gesture and expression. The music soundtrack is excellent and, just as importantly, is used very judiciously. The design of the title sequence is also extremely impressive.
But it's the naturalistic writing and atmosphere that allows story and cast the room to really breathe and fuels the subtleties of this quietly affecting drama. Particularly notable is the way that Matt finds a kind of closure; not through tearful reconciliations with his estranged family as you might expect but through his kindness to strangers. This involves the warring couple next door, who he has only previously known by hearing their arguments coming through the wall (a brilliant touch). Also assisting is a non-linear structure, which allows for some telling moments without compromising the coherence of the story. There are a few rough edges and the final act may seem a superfluous addition to some but still packs a heavy emotional punch. A vibrant and very moving piece of cinema that never descends into easy sentiment and remains a very positive and life- affirming experience, despite the theme.