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

Advertisements

Baby Mama


Tina Fey is just miffed that Amy Poehler won't share the Pringles.

Tina Fey is just miffed that Amy Poehler won’t share the Pringles.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin, Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor, James Rebhorn, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Romany Malco, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Mailer, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Kevin Collins, John Hodgman, Thomas McCarthy, Jason Mantzoukas, Dave Finkel, Felicity Stiverson.  Directed by Michael McCullers

Starting up a family is always something of an overwhelming proposition, never more so for a single parent who intends to stay a single parent. It is darn near impossible for an infertile single parent.

Kate Holbrook (Fey) is a capable, ambitious woman and that has played out into an executive position for a health food store chain, a beautiful apartment in Manhattan that is absolutely empty when she comes home. Not that she’s complaining, mind you – she owns her choices, after all. However, she is feeling her biological clock ticking down. She wants a baby in the worst way, and in her own organized fashion is doing what it takes. She’s tried adoption, and has been turned down. She’s tried artificial insemination, but her doctor (O’Hare) informs her that her uterus is not really suitable for impregnation and that an actual pregnancy would be a one in a million shot.

Desperate, she decides surrogacy might be the answer. She goes to the Chaffee Bicknell agency, whose titular head (Weaver) is despicably fertile, but promises to get a surrogate mother for Kate’s baby that passes the most rigid scrutiny. Chaffee sends Kate to Angie Ostrowski (Poehler), who couldn’t be any more different from the prim, cultured Kate. While Kate frets over every detail, Angie tends to be less detail-oriented than, say, a ten-year-old. While Kate keeps her apartment neat and clean, Angie prefers a more let-it-all-hang-out attitude. Kate dresses in smart business suits; Angie’s style can only be described as rural whore. In fact, if there were trailer parks in New York, Angie and her conniving boyfriend Carl (Shepard) would probably be living in one. If Kate is Masterpiece Theater, Angie and Carl are The Dukes of Hazzard.

Despite this, the two women find themselves bonding against all odds and decide to go through with the pregnancy. Not long after, Angie and Carl have a big fight and Angie shows up on Kate’s door, having nowhere else to go. Now, instead of preparing for a new baby in the home, Kate is having to live with a woman whose maturity level isn’t far above the baby she’s carrying.

The stresses begin to pile up. Kate is given a huge project at work by her new age boss (Martin) that may make unwelcome changes to a neighborhood, whose residents are not happy about the prospect, led by the handsome smoothie store owner Rob (Kinnear) who Kate is beginning to develop feelings for. On top of that, Angie is driving Kate crazy, and doesn’t appear to be all that concerned with the health and well-being of the baby – and Angie’s sins are rapidly catching up with her. Kate’s dream of being a mom is beginning to look like a longshot at best.

Fey has proven herself one of the funniest women working today, and those who loved her on 30 Rock are going to love her here. Poehler, so good in Blades of Glory and on SNL, does some of the best work of her career here. Martin, who has been mostly sticking to family comedies, returns to the silliness that characterized him in the ‘70s. Kinnear has carved out a niche as the nice, solid guy and makes a fine foil for Fey – hey, alliteration! ER’s Tierney plays Fey’s married mom of a sister and performs capably. Worth mentioning is Holland Taylor as Kate’s overbearing mom – she’s one of those dependable character actresses who almost always improves every movie she’s in. Shepard does the sleazy manipulator as well as anyone – if you saw him in Let’s Go to Prison, you pretty much know what to expect here.

Fey and Poehler work exceedingly well together, so much so that it leaves you hoping that they will continue to make movies together although as of yet they haven’t. The laughs come crisply but not at the expense of the characters and story.

This is definitely aimed at a female audience, and I found Da Queen laughing much more at things that only puzzled my poor, underdeveloped male brain. Not relating with the messy details of pregnancy and birthing, I found myself having a hard time relating to characters going through it and wanting to go through it.  .

Think of this as a chick comedy. If you’ve had a baby, or are pregnant, you are going to find this much more funny than the rest of us. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely without redemption, however. Fey and Poehler are a very good team, and their scenes together are the highlights of the movie. Bottom line, this is pretty well-written and plotted, although it isn’t difficult to discern where this is heading.

WHY RENT THIS: Great comedic chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Women tend to find this funnier than men do so if you’re of the fairer sex, this works nicely. Great support cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Women tend to find this funnier than men do so if you’re of the male sex, this might be too much for you. Predictable in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of jokes about female plumbing. There’s also some foul language and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Boo Boo Busters company that professionally childproofs Kate’s home is based on a real company by the same name in California. They supplied many of the child safety devices seen in the film, including the infamous toilet seat lock that “doesn’t work.”  Poehler eventually used that company to childproof her own home when she had children.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Saturday Night Live and its influence on the movies.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.2M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Housemaid

Made in India


Made in India

Lisa Switzer peruses a travel guide as she prepares for an unforgettable journey to India.

(2010) Documentary (Self-Released) Lisa Switzer, Brian Switzer, Aasia Khan, Rudy Rupak. Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha

As medical technology advances, ethical and legal issues are beginning to arise as procedures begin to allow things that were previously impossible to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to human procreation.

Brian and Lisa Switzer have been trying to make a baby for years, but nothing worked. They had tried nearly everything possible to get Lisa pregnant but eventually it was discovered that Lisa had medical issues that had left her infertile. Having Lisa carry a baby to term was no longer an option.

The couple was basically left with two choices; adoption and surrogacy (Lisa has viable eggs – her ovaries are intact – but her uterus had to be surgically removed). Lisa was adamant; she wanted a baby of her own genetic make-up and Brian supported her in trying to make her dream happen. Yes,  Lisa is one determined Texan. However, finding a surrogate mother in the United States is prohibitively expensive – the entire process can run, depending on where you live, anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, much of which has to do with the fees paid to the surrogate (usually in the neighborhood of $35,000) and legal fees.

Their options limited, they turned to medical tourism – the act of going out of the country for lower cost medical procedures – and the website Planet Hospital. From there they were hooked up with a clinic in India and a young mother named Aasia Khan. Aasia is a Muslim woman living in Mumbai with her husband and three children in abject poverty. Her sister-in-law had discovered that certain clinics paid Indian women what in India is a goodly amount of cash. Indian law requires that only married women are eligible to act as surrogates, so the unmarried sister-in-law was ineligible but Aasia certainly was. She knew her husband would object but the money was too tempting so she signed up for it.

She and Lisa were matched up and Lisa and Brian flew to India to have Lisa’s eggs harvested and Brian’s sperm collected. The egg was fertilized in the lab and implanted in Aasia. Per the clinic’s policy, neither parents nor surrogate were allowed to meet. The Switzers returned to San Antonio to wait while Aasia returned home to explain to her husband what was going on. He was understandably unhappy but asked his wife to limit her surrogacy career to this one baby.

However it turned out it wouldn’t be just one baby – Aasia was pregnant with twins. The Switzers were overjoyed, Lisa completely beside herself. They had mortgaged their house, sold everything and put every penny they could get their hands on into their dream and now it all appeared to be worth it.

As time went by, the Switzers received constant updates from Mumbai and Aasia was moved into an apartment that the clinic used for surrogate mothers where they could be monitored more thoroughly and the environment made cleaner and more conducive to a pregnant mother’s needs.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Nearly two months early, Aasia began to bleed and the doctors at the clinic determined that she needed to go to the hospital. Rather than transport her to the hospital the clinic had an agreement with, they sent her to the hospital nearest the apartment, one the clinic hadn’t worked with previously. An emergency Cesarean was performed.

Lisa was summoned hastily from Texas and went to the hospital to visit her babies in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Except, as far as the hospital was concerned, they weren’t her babies – they belonged to the birth mother – and refused to issue a birth certificate listing Lisa and Brian as parents, without which the twins wouldn’t be U.S. citizens and thus the parents wouldn’t be able to bring them home to Texas.

The relationship between Lisa (who had travelled alone to India because Brian couldn’t get away from work) and the hospital became increasingly contentious. Heartbroken and frustrated, she turned to the U.S. Embassy for assistance in navigating what was an increasingly difficult and complex legal issue. In the meantime, Aasia discovered she wasn’t getting compensated what she thought she deserved and wanted to re-negotiate with the clinic and get something from the Switzers as well.

To their credit, the filmmakers took no sides on the issues, choosing to present the story as it unfolded and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. An industry is arising out of surrogacy – it made $350 million two years ago and that number is expected to rise exponentially. The potential for abuse is rampant as countries all over the globe struggle – slowly – to enact legislation that creates guidelines and regulations for parents, medical professionals and surrogates to abide by.

Still, there are discrepancies. The contract the Switzers signed with Planet Hospital itemized that Aasia would be paid the equivalent of $7,000 while the contract she signed with the clinic only gave her about $2,000. What became of the difference is never fully explained (although Aasia was able to negotiate for a greater payment owing to her carrying of twins and medical issues that arose from it).

There are risks involved with surrogacy – and they are amply demonstrated here. Besides the medical and legal ramifications, there are also moral issues – when you think about it, the Switzers essentially were buying a baby. Yes, it was genetically theirs but once that line is crossed, where does it stop?

There are also those who would – and did – argue that the Switzers should have adopted. In their defense, even for parents with a stable household, the process of adoption is a costly and lengthy one and there are no guarantees even then that the Switzers would receive a baby in a reasonable length of time if at all.

Not being a woman, it is hard for me to comment on the urgency of Lisa Switzer’s mission to have a baby of her own. There is certainly a case to be made that she was acting out of selfishness; regardless of how you view her crusade, her determination has to be admired. She becomes the central character of the documentary, but Aasia’s bubbly personality, her quirky sense of humor and her quiet determination to make a better life for her family may stay with you more. I only wish we could have learned more about her, although I suspect the filmmakers were given a narrow bandwidth in which to work in terms of what could be discussed. I got the impression Aasia wanted a good deal of privacy.

This is an issue that is unfolding now, and the outcome has yet to be determined. This documentary presents the issues very logically and rationally without expressing any preferences to one viewpoint or the other. You are left therefore to make your own conclusions. For my viewpoint, it appears as if the business end of the surrogacy question is the one most being served and although I hope otherwise, the rights of the surrogates themselves will most likely take a backseat to the concerns of maximizing the profits for the business interests that become involved. In any case, there are no easy resolutions here and the filmmakers seem to respect the intelligence of their audience enough to not try to provide any. It is no wonder that this won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival; it is a virtual textbook on how to make a documentary properly.

REASONS TO GO: Raises many thoughtful issues about the legal minefield that is surrogacy, particular in regards to low-cost surrogacy in emerging nations. Filmmakers admirably adopt no viewpoint but tell the story simply.

REASONS TO STAY: Aasia’s backstory could have used some beefing up.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is very adult, but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Switzers were referred to the filmmakers by Rudy Rupak of Planet Hospital. After leaving a message for the couple, the filmmakers were contacted within ten minutes by the Switzers and the agreement for the documentary team to film their journey was reached.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a DVD release is likely on the horizon, your best bet is to catch this at a local film festival.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Troll Hunter