Dakin Henderson is in his early 20s. Amiable and vigorous, he plays team Frisbee and cycles. Death is not something you’d expect him to dwell on, let alone inspire him to write, direct, and narrate a documentary (“What Time Is Left’’ is his first feature-length film). But two surprising circumstances put mortality much on his mind.
One concerned an older generation. Both his grandmothers were in their 80s and lived in the same retirement home, in Hanover, N.H. Edie Gieg, his maternal grandmother, was vigorous and sharp. All 86-year-olds should be so lucky. His paternal grandmother, Polly Moffett, 84, suffered from progressive aphasia and had been in a nearly vegetative state for much of a decade. The other circumstance concerned himself. Henderson collapsed on the Frisbee field, and his heart stopped beating for two minutes.
Out of the contrasting situations of his grandmothers and his own brush with death Henderson has made “What Time Is Left.’’ The title could work just as well — maybe even better — with a question mark.
The Boston-based filmmaker interviews various family members (some of them interview him, too). We see them at family gatherings. He shows us each grandmother in Hanover — as well as Edie in Atlantic City (she drives down there to speak at a conference on geriatrics).
We don’t learn anything about the families’ backgrounds. That’s probably a wise decision on Henderson’s part, as it likely would be a distraction from his focus on aging and mortality. It’s plain, though, that the families are articulate and affluent. There’s a summer home on Cape Breton Island, for example, and you wouldn’t want to be paying the bills for either Edie’s or Polly’s care. In one of the documentary’s more affecting moments, Henderson’s Uncle Ned, Polly’s son, says, “Thousands of dollars a month are being spent to keep her’’ — and he starts to say “alive.’’ He catches himself. Instead he says, with slight but unmistakable emphasis, “comfortable.’’
In a society that twists itself into knots to avoid contemplating growing old and dying (oops: “passing away’’), it’s gratifying to see someone in his 20s try to deal with these subjects, let alone deal with them in such a clear-eyed and unassuming way. That said, Henderson’s youth works against him. Is the reason that the light he shows is always so clear and bright because he wants to compensate for the ostensibly grim subject matter? Or is it a beginning filmmaker’s sense that he needs to seduce his audience with prettiness? That might account for the shots of horses and flocks of birds at dusk.
There’s a scene that shows Henderson playing the piano for Polly. He’s in the background, her face fills the foreground. If the documentary were Shot Composition 101, the framing would earn Henderson an A. But it’s not. It’s two human beings in a professional film. So the effect is mannered and self-congratulatory. There’s a callowness to “What Time Is Left’’ that’s understandable in a first film — but dismaying in light of the subject of that film.
Related to this is a more sensitive matter, one that has to do with morality rather than artistry. Even granting the excellence and sincerity of Henderson’s intentions, there’s something slightly queasy-making about how he uses his family’s situation for material. He’s done so with their cooperation, of course — except for Polly’s. And when we glimpse Henderson’s younger brother starting to weep in a room where someone is dying, the viewer’s response is twofold: to want to turn away out of respect for the boy’s grief and wonder why the camera doesn’t. It’s a thin line between curiosity and insensitivity.