Local filmmaker shows great promise with first feature
Special to The Seattle Times
There's an implied shrug in the title "Living Life" that is not so much a lackadaisical attitude about one's time on Earth as it is a symbol of humility in the face of a great challenge: How to live well.
The hero of "Living Life," Seattle high-school senior Jason Miller (Benjamin P. Garman), is both blessed and cursed by a heightened awareness of that challenge in the final months of his life. Stricken by advanced cancer, Jason may never see Paris or become a professional photographer (he's an avid shutterbug), but he's not without modest opportunities to make a difference in his world.
While Jason's parents put on a brave face, Jason finds unexpected compassion from his grandfather, William (Dick Arnold), who hasn't seen him in eight years.
"Living Life," with Benjamin P. Garman, Dick Arnold, Mara Hansen. Written and directed by Jesse Harris. 88 minutes. Not rated; suitable for middle-school kids and up (mild themes of death and dying). Metro.
Concerned he is slipping into dementia, William yearns for time with Jason. The latter is grateful for the distraction, and they bond over an old-fashioned magic act William teaches the willing teenager.
Soon, Jason is regularly performing for sick and dying youngsters at a hospital. He comforts a couple of kids who don't realize that he, too, is facing the inexplicable unfairness of death at a tender age.
Less beneficial is Jason's attempt to hide his illness from his girlfriend, Kate (Mara Hansen), who thinks his elusiveness means he no longer loves her.
"Living Life" isn't the first movie with understated sophistication about the ways in which the dying embrace life and the living learn from their example. But it is a particularly impressive effort knowing the film was written and directed in 2003 by Seattle native Jesse Harris — before his senior year at Ballard High School.
Harris, now 19, studied filmmaking and funded the production with his college money. He used all local actors and brings to "Living Life" an unusually skillful eye for any first feature. Yes, there are rough spots, amateurish (even embarrassing) moments and scenes where one would like to hear better dialogue or see better acting. But if a viewer looks past all that and instead looks at Harris' fluidity as a visual storyteller, his ability to shoot different scenes in the same locations with entirely different emotional effects, and his knack for cutting both on action (for excitement) and between action (for reflection), then one soon realizes he has talent to burn.
Harris' unassuming sensitivity toward a difficult subject is just as impressive. So is his penchant for giving familiar Seattle locations — Seattle Center's International Fountain, Lower Woodland Park — a uniquely bittersweet, somber personality.
"Living Life" has considerable rewards as a drama. But it's also worth checking out to see what a gifted if slightly ungainly rookie achieved through irrepressible ambition.
Tom Keogh: email@example.com
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