Little Man (Nicole Conn, 2005)
It has been almost seven months since I watched Little Man. I have been at a loss to review it ever since. And even as I sit here typing these first few sentences, I’m not entirely sure quite what I’m going to say about this exquisite, heart-wrenching documentary, which as I write these words (December 14, 2012) is sitting at #89 on my list of my hundred favorite movies. It is a movie that is tough to describe in words, because I’m not sure there are words that can convey the journey taken by Nicole, Gwen, and Nicholas. How do you collapse into a single term the combination of soul-destroying rage and a depth of love I can’t even begin to imagine—and then sustaining that over 158 days (and really, that’s just the beginning)?
I was already a Nicole Conn fan before seeing this. I got a chance to see her short Cynara: Poetry in Motion back in 2010. It sits at #316 on that same list I mentioned before, and in reviewing it, I said “…it’s possibly the most erotic, and the most romantic, forty minutes I have ever seen on a screen.“ Nicole Conn, to intentionally misquote Clive Barker, most certainly knows the difference between a camera lens and a plate of spaghetti. In telling the story of Little Man, which was obviously a subject that struck very close to home, Conn made a decision from day one: this was not going to be objective in any way. This is memoir, not autobiography. I am fond of saying that I loathe memoirs. There are always a handful of exceptions to any rule, at least where I’m concerned. It was a very good decision; Conn approached the many and varied subjects of the film (herself, partner Gwen Baba, their two-year-old daughter Gabrielle, Nicholas’ huge medical team, family friends, various reporters etc., and of course Nicholas himself) as characters as much as real people; this may be a documentary, but it still has a composed feel to it that makes me wonder just how many hours of actual footage Conn shot and edited down to the 112 minutes we see here. My guess is that number would be somewhere in the four figures (at least one member of the medical team says during an after-the-fact interview that after a while they just forgot the cameras were there).
[I’m not sure one can refer to “spoiler alerts” with a straight face when one is referring to a documentary, especially one whose director has gone out of her way to keep its fans updated about on the internet, but just in case, I’ll tell you that portions of the rest of this review contain what could be considered spoilers, so you may want to stop reading now if you are sensitive to that sort of thing.]
I’ve gone two paragraphs before starting a plot synopsis, which is something I try never to do, so I’ll pause the brain dump briefly to tell you exactly what it is I’m on about: Nicole Conn and her partner of seven years, Gwen Baba, had a pretty durned good life; Conn is an award-winning filmmaker, Baba a noted political activist. They had a two-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, and talked about having—and ultimately decided to have—another child. Thus began a string of negligence and duplicity that resulted in Nicholas, a micro-preemie born at twenty-five weeks with a chance of survival in the vicinity of one ten-thousandth of one percent. Despite her previous feelings towards preemies (in her director’s statement at the movie’s website, Conn says, “It is difficult to believe that before my introduction to the NICU, I would change the channels as fast as I could if I saw a preemie on TV. I couldn’t look at the pictures of them in magazines. I’m ashamed to admit it, but they terrified me.“), Conn finds herself not only head over heels in love with Nicholas, but also fascinated by the medical technology involved—the very fact that through technology it is now possible to extend life. But, as she asks later in the director’s statement, “We are becoming a society who saves lives because we can. But at what cost are [we] presuming to play god?”
The birth caused a rift in Conn and Baba’s relationship almost immediately, as Conn logged endless hours at Nicholas’ side, while Baba kept the home fires burning. The movie ends on what seems to be a happy note—Gwen comes to visit Nicholas in the hospital for the first time since his first few days of life—but it ended too early; Conn and Baba were divorced in 2007, soon after Nicholas’ fifth birthday. (For the record, as I write this, Nicholas has beaten the odds and is on his way towards his eleventh birthday.)
Here’s where we get into the territory where things get sticky. Nicholas is still alive, and thriving. End justifies the means, right? I don’t know, and I rush to add that I am obviously playing armchair quarterback here, and deserve all the vitriol that could possibly come from playing armchair quarterback in this instance; I have two children (one of who was born seven months before I watched this movie, and I am fully aware that probably had something to do with my reactions to it), but both were born whole, hale, and hearty. I also know that it is entirely possible that were I in Nicole Conn’s shoes I might very well have done the same thing, though I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it nearly as long as she did (that last quote I referred to in the director’s statement goes on to address that specific piece of the puzzle—the outrageous cost of the procedures that were required to keep Nicholas alive during those first critical one hundred fifty-eight days). But you can’t help but ask while watching this movie if Conn was making the right decisions. I couldn’t, at least, and members of the medical team mention during their interviews that Conn was counseled on a number of occasions that the chances of Nicholas surviving were so slim that turning off life support was a viable option. I’m justifying the armchair quarterbacking because I believe, given the way Conn presents things in the film (specifically, the placement of some of the interviews) and because of some of the things she says in the director’s statement on the movie’s website, that Conn wants us to ask these questions. She wrestled with them as well, though I think the answers were pretty swift to come in her case—she was going to see this through to the end, no matter how bitter that end might be.
There is all sorts of meta here—all kinds of baggage I should be taking into account when considering my reaction to this movie. But I don’t believe any of it matters, at least not enough to change my judgment, or my rating, of the movie; it really is that good. Few things I have ever seen compare with it. While I have on occasion referred to it above as a documentary, it would be more fitting to refer to it is a memoir. And taking it as that, instead of as a documentary, it’s the best I’ve ever seen. This is, quite simply, great filmmaking. **** ½