Breathing is at the center of "I Am Breathing," Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon's documentary about the final days of an English architect named Neil Platt. The 34-year-old father and all around good bloke was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease (MND), what's known as Lou Gehrig's in the United States, a progressive and fatal malady marked by the degeneration of the neurons charged with muscle control.
By the time we meet Neil, he's paralyzed from the neck down. He can still speak and swallow, but he relies on a ventilator to breathe, and the loud, rhythmic mechanical apparatus serves as the constant soundtrack to the film.
Part impressionistic abstract of his day-to-day experience merging with idyllic memories, part letter to his toddler son Oscar, "Breathing" takes its humorous, contemplative tonal cues from Neil himself — revealing his prognosis, for example, through a funny yet poignant anecdote about trying to cancel his phone contract because, well, he's dying. The narrative fills out his background through the blog he writes with defective voice-recognition software and home movies he narrates for his boy.
The film leaves out some nagging logistical questions, like how much Neil's home care costs and whether there's also a financial burden adding to the familial strain. (His wife Louise, it should be acknowledged, is unflaggingly patient, kind and devoted — or at least she's portrayed that way.) But Davie and McKinnon make a smart and devastating choice to introduce the fact that Neil's MND is genetic and then cut to his exuberant son — letting the implication sink in.
"I Am Breathing"
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills