(2018) Documentary (Mangurama) Mara Gordon, Bonni Goldstein, Tracey Ryan, AJ Kephart, Amanda Reiman, Sunil Agarwal, Shirley Kephart, Josh Ryan, Sharon Lane, Angela Peterson, Yohai Gulan Gild, Jeffrey Rabe, Donald Abrams, Adrian Peterson, Chris Kephart, Angela Smith, Ethan Nadelmann, Stewart Smith, Angela Harris, Alice O’Leary-Randall. Directed by Abby Epstein
Marijuana has been demonized for decades in this country. The FDA has placed marijuana on an equal footing with heroin in terms of enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the country wants it legalized, particularly for its medicinal benefits but our government refuses to even consider it, largely because Big Pharma wants it to remain criminalized.
This film argues the case for legalization rather effectively, following five families with children who are afflicted with cancer. Desperate for relief from pain and suffering both from the disease and the chemo treatments, the parents turn from traditional medicine to alternative cures. California, where medical marijuana has been legalized for years, is the setting here and a family from Chicago, which sets up residency in California in order to get the cannabis oil that might be keeping their son alive, is also followed here.
Physician and advocate Bonni Goldstein counsels family through the sometimes confusing process of qualifying for the medical marijuana program is profiled as well as Mara Gordon, a former process engineer who has become a cannabis oil cooker, helping patients determine the dosage needed for their children. “We are lab rats,” she states grimly and indeed it’s true; there has been very little research done into the use of cannabis to treat cancer and much of what Gordon does is through trial and error. Sometimes the results are spectacular, bordering on the miraculous as tumors shrink and cancers flees. In one case here, the usage of the cannabis cannot stop the child’s death from his disease.
There are a lot of talking heads and a lot of scientists and doctors giving mainly anecdotal evidence – as I said there is little in the way of formal studies – about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating cancer, improving appetite and reducing pain. The science and logic are well supported even though some of the science (particularly when they talk about cannibinoids and chemistry) went sailing over my sadly non-scientific head but the filmmakers do make a very good case.
However, one can’t help but feel manipulated. Any good will that the movie generates for its cause disappears in light that the filmmakers use children exclusively to make their point. Adults need cannabis oil just as desperately as children do but sick kids make more of an emotional impact. It reeks of dirty pool and while I suppose that the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window when a family member is in a life or death fight, it still rubbed me the wrong way and felt a little exploitative to boot.
I also felt that the filmmakers were presenting cannabis as a cure that can’t fail, like penicillin was once. The fact is that cannabis is ineffective for some people (one of the children, as I stated, didn’t survive) and that may well be due to the lack of clinical studies – and I totally agree that such studies should be undertaken forthwith. Still, it seems a bit cruel to build up the hope for parents of sick kids or families of sick adults. Even Gordon, who approaches the subject with level-headed perspective born of an engineering background, cautions “I can’t promise anything,” as she sits down with those who are desperate for anything. The treatment is prohibitively expensive and isn’t covered by most insurance policies.
One physician early on cautions “The plural of anecdote is not ‘evidence’,” and the filmmakers seems to lose sight of that here. The stories are indeed compelling, the subject is indeed worth exploring, the advocates interviewed are indeed passionate and the children quietly courageous. All that is to the good. If Epstein had handled the subject with a little bit more of an even hand, I think her documentary would have been far more persuasive. I support the conclusions more in spite of the film than because of it – not what I’m sure any filmmaker wants to hear about their documentary
REASONS TO GO: It’s an important topic that needs to be addressed. The advocates are engaging and truly passionate. The children with cancer are resilient, courageous and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads and the science sometimes goes over mine. The filmmakers are a little too biased.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references although mostly in medical terms.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, it has only been illegal in this country for about 75 years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super High Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10