For many, there’s little excitement involved in the “triumph of the human spirit” genre, a territory well-worn by made-for-TV movies and Oprah’s book club. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it; it feels good to see a fellow human being overcome adversity. But there’s also not much to challenge the audience. The protagonist will struggle, reach a low point, and push through. Stylistic variations aside, the trope is simple, and often boring. How is this fixed? When Westerns grew stale, Sergio Leone shifted focus to the moments between the gunfights and action scenes. Vince Gilligan recently did the same for TV crime dramas. In his film, When I Walk, Jason DaSilva, with the digital-age powers of constantly-available video, shares the millions of tiny and potentially forgettable moments that come with a major degenerative disease, in a way that wisely sacrifices the “triumphant” aspect and focuses on the “human.”
A perfect example is the way we are introduced to the situation. Jason is actually documenting his own condition here, and when we meet him, he is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. There is no doctor’s office incident, where the diagnosis is read and the sound drops out, or someone starts crying. We simply see him on a beach, with his family, having a bit of difficulty rising from a sitting position. His brother helps him up and his mother flashes a small concerned look. A genuine moment, no more dressed up than a friend’s home movie. Without context it might not even register as someone battling a disability, but here it’s an immediate acknowledgment of the unavoidable mundanity of it all. Throughout the film, one learns that MS isn’t necessarily someone heroically gritting their teeth and pushing through their obstacles in a cinematic way. It’s someone taking twenty plus minutes to put their socks on, or seeming a little disappointed with having to use a cane.
Jason’s background is in documentary filmmaking, and one gets the sense that he has enough footage of his life and travels to piece together a story about almost anything. After being forced to abandon another project due to vision problems brought on by his condition, he turns his full energy towards When I Walk. Displaying a knack for carving out a story (I’m tempted to use the phrase self-editing here), we watch Jason, in the editing room, watching himself walk, in previous days’ footage. It’s almost as if he’s catching a mistake in the dailies, seeing something that wasn’t shot correctly. But its his gait itself that is troubling. We watch him realize what he will look like in the final version of what we are currently watching. A filmic representation of the notion that it’s already too late to stop the disease. By choosing to prioritize pensive, unromantic and emotionally complex moments like this, the movie is able to stay away from melodrama, and instead eliminate as much of the distance between subject observer as possible. When the director has become his own project, it only makes sense to disregard any pretense of manipulating the audience; if his life story’s not real, then what will be?
Honesty, though, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee a great film. The all-inclusiveness of the work is admirable, and the attention to and selection of small details is beautiful, but there are aspects that do little to serve the goals of the piece, for instance the on-the-nose recurring shot of Jason sitting or standing still during a time-lapse as people walk around him, or a half-inserted crusade against wheelchair inaccessibility. When I Walk is at its best when it’s focused on specific junctures, crucial not for their salience but for how Jason processes them. He’s always looking one step ahead, as a filmmaker and as a character. The title is reflective of this. And because the movie relishes the natural and forgoes the tired beats one would expect this story to hit, the audience is pulled in, and will likely wonder what the next step for Jason is, too.