Sam Berns is an ultra-likable, high-achieving Massachusetts teen who waxes philosophical in "Life According to Sam" — and builds his own Lego universe. A bright kid with an old soul, he's one of about 250 children worldwide who were born with progeria, a genetic abnormality that causes accelerated aging.
The documentary by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, which is receiving an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release before its Monday premiere on HBO, takes a boilerplate approach to inspirational material. This is the straightforward story of a family facing adversity head-on and making inroads against a rare disease.
Down-to-earth and indefatigable, mom Leslie Gordon and dad Scott Berns are both physicians, but her professional focus since Sam's diagnosis has been the research foundation she formed. Within a few years, it identified the gene responsible for the condition and set up a clinical drug trial, enlisting children from around the world.
The directors ("War/Dance") zero in on the dilemmas that such a study poses and the terrible waits during the review process — there are plenty of shots of Gordon anxiously reading emails. Her commentary, which grows repetitious, is largely unnecessary; her compassion and commitment are powerfully evident in exchanges with the kids in the trial and their parents. So too is the poignancy of these family stories, glimpsed only in hospital visits.
Progeria patients succumb to cardiovascular disease, with an average life expectancy of 13 to 14 years. Sam is 13 when the filmmakers pick up his story, and he already demonstrates a mature understanding of death. It's his joie de vivre, though, that leaves the deepest impression.
'Life According to Sam.' No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.