Love Always, Mom


The definition of what a family is has evolved.

(2018) Documentary (Cedar Street) Tricia Russo, Greg Russo, Meghan Brenner, Kali Rogers, Lauren Gonnella, Matthew Brenner, Andrew Solomon, Kathryn Kaycoff, Stuart Leitner, Grayson Russo, Kathryn Fiore, Tom Gonnella, Raul Mena, Cathy Wambagh, Grayson Russo, Melanie Carlisle, Don Russo, Donna Russo, Lori Meyers, Carole Lieber-Wilkins, Olivia Erb. Directed by Tricia Russo, Trish Gonnella and Craig E. Shapiro

 

Director, writer and star of Love Always, Mom kicks off her film by intoning “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be a mom.” Certainly that’s not unusual among little girls who see their mommies as little girls and given the maternal instinct that’s present in most women it’s not surprising that the desire is so prevalent.

Tricia would appear to have all the right qualifications; she is married to a good man and as a stable relationship. She is surrounded by a loving and supportive family. She has a good career (not discussed during the film but she works in the film industry, including a stint for Miramax Films) and she’s young and healthy – until she’s not.

She contracts breast cancer and after losing a breast appears to have overcome the odds. Then in 2011 a new metastasized tumor is found in her brain. That one is also removed but now she’s at Stage 4 cancer, a particularly deadly place to be. The drugs that she has to take to survive inhibit her hormones and make a normal pregnancy impossible.

She and Greg (her husband) decide to go the surrogacy route as adoption is out of the question – her life expectancy would be an issue in any potential adoption. However, another body blow is dealt when the doctors are unable to harvest her eggs. A separate egg donor must be found as well. We follow step by step in the process and the obstacles that fall in the way are indescribable. Russo the filmmaker handles them well, explaining things with a minimum of medical jargon.

Her courage and the selflessness of Kali (her egg donor) and Meghan (her surrogate) are remarkable. Until you watch this film or have been through this kind of surrogacy yourself, there’s no way to really describe what all three of these women go through in adequate terms. Women will have an easier time understanding than men in this case; watching what they all go through – two of them in order to help a complete stranger – is absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t admire these women more.

There is also Tricia’s experience with cancer, going from good health to finding a lump to losing a breast to finding the tumor had spread to her brain. We see her high points and low, her pervasive fear that she won’t live long enough for her child to remember her, her feeling that she might not even live long enough to see the child born. Her perseverance and strength are truly remarkable; any misogynist politician who explains that the reason women aren’t paid at an equal rate to men because they lack the physical and mental strength that men have is truly feeding the nation a crock of feces. Either they’re ignorant of how deep the well of strength flows in women or they’re deeply frightened that if women take charge these old white men will be left by the wayside. Maybe they should be.

While sometimes this feels a bit like a home movie (which it essentially is) and sometimes the filmmakers don’t provide enough context particularly regarding the cost of surrogacy financially (which is high – the Russo family shelled out over $130,000 for the egg donor, the surrogate and the legal and medical fees) which is beyond the reach of the majority of Americans. Still this film and now her son Grayson will remain a more than satisfactory legacy for Tricia Russo; regardless of how long or short the remainder of her life is.

Note that the film has no distribution as of yet; it is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit. Hopefully it will get some sort of distribution at some point and be available either theatrically or on VOD. Regardless, this is a movie worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very informative about the processes of breast cancer and infertility. The cinematography is beautiful throughout. Tricia, Meghan and Kali are all incredible women whose courage and selflessness are examples to us all.
REASONS TO STAY: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pink Ribbons, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ramen Heads

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First Comes Love


Baby on board.

Baby on board.

 

(2012) Documentary (Self-Released) Nina Davenport. Directed by Nina Davenport   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Having a baby isn’t a decision to be made lightly. It requires commitment and a certain amount of lunacy; once that decision is entered into, your life changes forever. This is doubly true for single moms, whose life focus must change to the baby they are about to have.

At 41, New York City documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport feels her biological clock ticking. Having a child of her own has been a life goal of hers and she has come to the conclusion that she can no longer wait to find the right man to have a child; she will have one without a husband and raise the baby by herself. She had a fairly idyllic childhood with a supportive mom and a father who provided well, working for the auto industry in Michigan. She also decides to document the process on-camera.

She selects Eric, a gay friend, to be the sperm donor; she assures him that he will carry no financial or moral responsibility towards the baby and can have whatever relationship with it that he chooses. He’s at first wary of the situation but ultimately agrees.

However, Davenport is faced with the death of her mother before she can get pregnant. Her relationship with her father – who is somewhat judgmental of her career choice and not the most supportive and affectionate of men – is rocky at best. Both of her brothers have achieved success in business and have families of their own. She reveals her plan to most of her family and friends seeking feedback – from her family most of it is negative. Her friends are somewhat more supportive, but one senses that there is some hesitation on their part to fully bless her scheme.

We see Ms. Davenport go through her pregnancy in all the hormonal spectacle that comes with it. We see her body become a receptacle of life and the beauty inherent in pregnancy. We see her confronting her doubts and those of her friends and family, her frustrations and her fears. We also see her joy and her eagerness to welcome a new life into the world which she eventually does, in graphic detail. For those who have ever seen a birth video, you get to see Nina’s so be aware that you see the baby come out of the birth canal and into the light so be aware of that if you’re a squeamish sort (but prospective mothers and fathers should probably see it before deciding if dad should be given a place in the delivery room).

By necessity this is a story that is very self-involved. Davenport chose to turn the camera on herself which of course invites judgment on her choices, on her life. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to do that. Because she is not just chronicling changes to her life, but changes to her body, and thus we see a good deal of her breasts, her sex and so on. Certainly it’s brave but as my wife put it, once a woman gives birth she loses her modesty forever – the delivery room will do that to you.

I’m not 100% certain if this is the documentary she initially set out to make. I never got a sense of the bonding between Davenport and her baby although I’m sure that bond is there – it’s not something that’s easy to capture on film, particularly when you don’t have a particularly objective director.

And I think that objectivity is something this documentary could have used. We might have benefitted from another perspective other than that of the prospective mother but we are denied that and so we end up with kind of a one-dimensional film. I don’t know that this movie did Davenport any favors in her personal life; at baby Jasper’s first birthday, Nina’s apartment is full of well-wishers. For his second, there is only Nina, Jasper and Nina’s good friend and birth coach Amy. Now while that may have been by design to have a more intimate celebration, it leaves me wondering if the constant presence of the camera may have alienated some of Nina’s support group which may well be the kind of casualty that will in the long run effect Jasper just as much.

It’s not for me to question her choices mind you. I don’t know what her motivations are to document such a personal event in her life are – be it from a legitimate desire to show what single mothers approaching middle age are facing, or out of some sort of narcissistic streak inside Nina herself. That is ultimately up to the viewer to decide what they believe.

Birth is a beautiful thing. Raising a baby is an exhausting but rewarding adventure. I will say however that it is something that is far less rewarding to watch someone else do than it is to do oneself and I think that is at the core my problem with the film. It’s too much of a home movie of someone I don’t have an emotional connection with.

REASONS TO GO: Unflinchingly honest and occasionally brave.

REASONS TO STAY: Very self-involved. Really geared towards women more than men.

FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic nudity, sequences of human birth and plenty of bad language and adult themes – if your children aren’t aware of the birds and the bees yet you may wish to forego letting them see this until they’re a little older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker previously appeared at the Florida Film Festival in 2008.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has made a few appearances on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Belly

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Renoir and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!!