There are some places the human heart just doesn't want to go, and a four-hour documentary about children with cancer is one of them. But there are also experiences that leave a viewer with a profoundly enriched awareness of life's fragility and our own unexpected strength, and ``A Lion in the House" is one of those, too. A heart - render and a hankie-drencher, it's a film of quiet, almost incalculable power.
Screening in two parts at the Brattle today and tomorrow -- it also airs as part of PBS's ``Independent Lens" series June 18-19 -- ``Lion" is the product of eight years of work by filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who were approached in 1997 by Dr. Robert Arceci, then head of the oncology department at Cincinnati's Children's Hospital Medical Center. Unknown to the doctor, the married documentarians had just come through their own cancer scare with their young daughter; not surprisingly, the directorial sensitivities are spread pretty evenly around.
``A Lion in the House" -- the title comes from Isak Dinesen -- focuses on a handful of patients undergoing treatment at the hospital's Cancer Center, more commonly referred to by staff and families as ``5-A." The first half of the film introduces us to three kids who've already been through at least one round of chemotherapy and remission: 19-year-old Justin Ashcraft, who's been fighting leukemia for a decade; Alex Lougheed, a prankish 7-year-old girl also with leukemia; and Tim Wood, a 15-year-old with Hodgkins lymphoma. In the second half, we meet 6-year-old Jen and 11-year-old Al, both just starting their battles with cancer.
Some of these children will be healthy at the end of ``Lion" and others will have died; the film crosses its fingers and watches. Justin and Alex have the eerie stoicism of war veterans, but Tim, an inner-city African - American, is another story: When he meet him, he's in denial about his physical state, flushing his meds down the toilet and ignoring his oncologist's warnings to gain weight. One of the most compelling narrative threads here is watching Tim take on gravitas over the long haul; by the second half of the film, he's making lucid decisions about his treatment and holding out hope that he might someday become a doctor, too. His disease matures him even as it wastes him.
The children are only one point in the film's larger design. The doctors and nurses of 5-A are presented as deeply committed to their patients' care, medically and, in most cases, emotionally. Says one oncologist, ``I want it to be hard. If it starts to get easy, I need to pick up something else." In almost every case, the physicians become welded into the inner family circle; when Justin's longtime caregiver, Dr. Claire Mazewski, moves to a new job in Atlanta, the parting can't help but be felt as a betrayal by both parties.
It's the parents, however, who are the film's fractured saints, and their strength is as awe-inspiring as their frailties are understandable. The refusal of Justin's parents, Dale and Debbie Ashcraft, to let their son go illustrates the dilemmas of modern cancer care and casts an uncomfortable light on family members unable to talk to each other.
Tim's mother, Merietha, is a larger-than-life bulwark to her extended family, but even she hunkers down into denial toward the end; one of life's fixers, she's unable to cope with something that simply can't be fixed. Similarly, Alex's mother, Judy Lougheed, is a tough, upbeat dynamo who only inadvertently lets the cracks show; ironically, her husband, Scott, may be better off for being the weaker vessel. Everyone faults him for his insistence on one last, deluded round of chemo during his daughter's final days -- the doctors, his wife, even himself. Judge this man at your peril, the film implies; God forbid you should have to make the same decision.
``A Lion in the House" holds its length for the most part; if these people are in for the duration, so should we be. Nor does the film pull punches: We see brain operations, experimental treatments, results both cheering and tragic, and are present shortly after moments of death and during open-casket funerals.
Little of this feels exploitive, though. Bognar and Reichert use narration sparingly and take the time-honored fly-on-the-wall approach to their subjects, and the subjects, in turn, understand the camera's intrusion as a form of sharing and commemoration. Footage of Tim silently weeping at the news that his cancer has returned is cruel, and yet we also have this memento of a vital, thoughtful boy who once walked the earth.
It's a hard bargain, but everything about this movie is hard, especially if you're a parent . Sometimes you have to look steadily at the worst to understand what's precious, and ``A Lion in the House" never flinches.