Documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker envisioned "The Lion's Mouth Opens," which screens as part of the documentary shorts program at the Sundance Film Festival, as "an espresso shot to the heart."
It is most certainly that. Fifteen minutes of shifting, searing emotions as its subject, actress-writer-director Marianna Palka, deals with the prospect she might have the gene for Huntington's disease, the neurodegenerative disorder that cruelly felled her father, taking, as the Scottish-born actress' mum recounts, both his body and his mind in torturous ways.
Incurable, largely untreatable, passed down in families, her father's fate might be hers. A test could tell her, and Palka had decided to take it when she reached out to Walker through a mutual friend, asking her to film the process.
The tone from the beginning is intimate, personal, as Palka cooks dinner for a few friends and talks about the difficulty of knowing versus not knowing. You might say the scene feels comfortable if the story weren't so unsettling. As are the faces that eventually gather around the table. No one, including Palka, is introduced, there are no title cards, and at least in the cut I saw, no credits beyond the word "Anonymous." But you'll know them.
Palka, a regular in the indie world and on the Los Angeles theater scene, may be best known to mainstream audiences for the 2008 film "Good Dick," which she wrote, directed and co-starred in with her longtime love, Jason Ritter. He is there in "Lion's," as is his sister Carly, along with Palka's close friend Bryce Dallas Howard of "The Help," her husband Seth Gabel ("Fringe" and "The Da Vinci Code"), her assistant Moet Hashimoto and director Mike Uppendahl ("Mad Men," among others).
It almost feels as if you've been dropped into the middle of the story, but the timing is a very specific choice.
When Walker, with two Oscar nominations for her documentary work, took the project on, she wasn't sure how long the film should be, how much it should cover. What she did know is that it needed to begin "before." Before the results because, as Walker says, "I knew whatever the results were, Marianna would never have 'before' again."
Like a family gathering, the short unfolds around a crowded dinner table marked by great platters of food, great warmth and great sadness. Palka herself is such an extraordinary presence on screen; stories of her strength, fears, humanity, humor get passed around the table with the food. Coming to America as a 17-year-old with $100 in her pocket. Building a career around a craft she loves. What the future might hold.
The test results hang over the night. They are in the doctor's office waiting for Palka to pick them up and find out.
The footage was shot last year from April to August with a crew of two — cinematographer Nick Higgins and Walker, who also wielded the boom, as she says, "quite badly. I wouldn't hire me."
"We didn't shoot too too much," Walker says. "You get what you need and you go. I'm convinced half of the job is picking incredible people and knowing when to show up."
The experience for the filmmaker soon began to morph into something beyond just another film. She has directed or co-directed 17 thus far, a mix of feature documentaries and shorts, with 2013's "The Crash Reel" recently named as one of five documentaries on the Directors Guild of America's 2014 awards shortlist. (The winner will be announced Jan. 25.)
"Marianna's call came at a time I was so busy, but I met her, talked to her, and there is so much positive power in her, I thought I'll do anything for this girl. Really, I've made it as a gift to her."
As to why film something so personal, Walker says she has often found that the process of putting difficult moments on film carries a very real power for those in pain. "It is such a beautiful idea that your stories, even your suffering, can help other people," she says. "It's courageous, it's inspirational, it's healing. I know it to be true."
This is Walker's sixth time bringing a film to Sundance, and it's her shortest piece yet. But like so much of her work, "The Lion's Mouth Opens" speaks eloquently about courage in the face of hardship, accepting the unacceptable.
Though it is in every sense a short, even the filmmaker's acclaimed 2010 "Waste Land," which followed contemporary artist Vik Muniz as he constructed work out of the debris of a Rio de Janeiro landfill with the poor who live there, doesn't come close to "Lion's" emotional depth.
The director says there was some thought to premiere the film on the opening night of the festival, but the fear was that because of the cast, audiences might think it was a "mockumentary."
I doubt that would have been an issue; the texture is too real, the emotions too raw, there is no acting to be seen.
The film ends with Palka — Howard and Hashimoto at her side — crowded into Dr. Susan Perlman's office, the doctor placing the envelope in her hand as she reveals the results. An espresso shot to the heart. A story that is far from over.