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Dying Young : Much-Lauded ‘Princes in Exile’ Mixes Pathos With Humor and Spirit

Sharon Bernstein is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

Producer John Dunning says that making “Princes in Exile,” a film about a young man’s coming of age at a camp for children with cancer, was his pay-back for years of making blood-and-guts action movies.

“We’d been making these high-concept films,” said Dunning, a partner in Canadian-based Cinepix Inc., which previously made films such as “Meatballs” with Bill Murray and B-titles such as “Bloody Valentine” and “Snake Eater.”

Then Dunning came across Mark Schreiber’s novel “Princes in Exile.” “I read the book and I said to my partner, ‘Maybe we should do a film for the message.”’

The result was “Princes,” which gets its U.S. TV premiere Wednesday on the USA cable network and was made jointly by Cinepix, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the Canada National Film Board.

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The film tells the story of Ryan, a teen-ager who has a brain tumor, as he struggles to come to grips with his mortality.

When the film opens, Ryan (played by Zachary Ansley), who wanted to become a doctor until he was diagnosed with brain cancer, has accepted his fate. But while his cancer is in remission, Ryan can’t bring himself to enjoy even the short time he has left.

At the camp, he finds friends and love and begins to live again.

“The question (of the film) is if a kid is living for the future and what he can become, and he knows there’s very little chance he can reach that goal, then what purpose does life have?” Mark Schreiber said.

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Schreiber, who wrote the book-his first published novel-when he was just 20, said he got the idea from a television news segment on camps for children with cancer. The story, he said, is fiction, derived mostly from his ideas for developing the character of Ryan.

“I decided it had to be completely fictional,” Schreiber said. “I didn’t want to base it on any particular children. I did my research through nurses, parent groups and doctors I because I didn’t want to impose myself on the kids.”

When Schreiber was doing his research 10 years ago, there were only seven camps for children with cancer in the United States. Today, the camps are fairly common, generally underwritten by hospitals and health-care organizations. “It’s important for someone who’s around hospitals a lot to be in a positive natural environment,” said Schreiber, who has become a booster for such camps since researching his book. “It’s nice to be around trees, to see nature in a positive way.”

In the United States, “Princes” opened last year in limited release in theaters in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, before moving on to the festival circuit. It aired in Canada on the CBC. So far, the film has won seven awards at major festivals, including best screenplay at the World Film Festival in Montreal, best television film at the Monte Carlo Film Festival and the “diploma of honor” at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Dunning says that the film is different from standard made-for-TV medical fare. “We always see what the parents suffer when their kids are sick, but nobody’s ever done anything from the kids’ point of view,” Dunning said. “In fact, there was a little scene in the book where the parents came up visiting, and I didn’t want to put it in the film. This was the kids’ view of the disease, and I didn’t want to get adults into it.”

“Princes” also lacks some of the melodrama that fills most medical movies, Dunning said.

“It’s a summer camp, so there’s a lot of humor in it,” he said. “The illness is there, and the tragedy is there, but there’s an underlying humor. These kids are not totally depressed all the time.”

Because all of the children at the camp are in remission, “they behave like kids at camp.”

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Ryan becomes close to the camp’s resident daredevil and a girl named Holly (played by Stacy Mistysyn), who has lost part of a leg to her cancer.

He comes to camp with two goals: to publish his journal and to lose his virginity. Along the way, he finds the strength to live richly in the time that remains to him.

“He had been oriented toward becoming a physician and treating people, and (instead) he became the patient and the victim, and he has to see the world through those eyes,” Schreiber said. “And he also has to face the fact that he is not going to reach his dream. What he learns is how to resolve himself to living day to day.”

And while the story is about youngsters, its message is for adults, say Dunning and Schreiber. In hopes of attracting a family audience, USA has scheduled the two-hour film for the night before Thanksgiving.

“In (Hollywood), we look at all these Rambo-like heroes, the musclemen of the world, playing all these heroes,” Dunning said. “If there is any message at all, it’s that these kids-not the cinematic ones-are the real heroes.”

“Princes in Exile” airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the USA network.


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