At some point in 2014, news about a new documentary short from filmmaker Lucy Walker, two-time Oscar nominee and director of the very well regarded feature The Crash Reel, hit the wire. Walker’s involvement was enough to prick up ears, but it was the film’s subject matter – and its actual subject – that captured my attention. The Lion’s Mouth Opens (a title pulled from a Bob Dylan song, one whose provenance and meaning play a huge part in the film) centers on filmmaker and actress Marianna Palka as she prepares herself to get life-changing news. The diametric opposite of a vanity project, The Lion’s Mouth Opens instead lets the viewer into an unnerving situation (and an accompanying set of complex emotions) that is so personal that it frequently feels invasive even to watch.
You should still watch.
Palka first caught my attention with her 2008 feature Good Dick, which she pulled triple duty on, writing, directing, and starring in the feature. The movie, which co-stars Palka’s then-partner Jason Ritter, is an intimate look at the halting relationship between two damaged people, a romance for the rest of us, and a really good one at that.
Like The Lion’s Mouth Opens, the film feels so personal that to watch it is to both play a part in its action and to feel, quite keenly, how outside its story you are. How much the film reflected the pair’s actual relationship, I don’t know (and I don’t want to know), but the sense of honesty and intimacy permeated it, and Palka’s work and the seeming bravery that it took to put it on the screen struck me. I felt like I knew her – a common misunderstanding that seems to walk hand in hand with viewing films that are so singularly attributed to one talent, and thus their own life – and that’s why I was afraid of The Lion’s Mouth Opens.
If you go looking for the spoilers, you can find them, but you have to dig a bit, and in the course of the digging, you’ll probably get the sense that you should stop looking. You should stop looking (but you can keep reading, you won’t find any spoilers here).
The Lion’s Mouth Opens chronicles Palka during the course of about a day – a dinner in the evening opens it, then it moves to the next day – as she prepares to find out if she has the genetic markers that indicate that she will get Huntington’s disease, a vicious neurodegenerative disease passed down from parents, one that is terrifyingly described as a cross between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (it takes your mind and your body). Palka knows a thing or two about Huntington’s, because her father has it. And her grandmother had it. And she already knows that her cousin and her sister will get it, too. That’s the thing about Huntington’s (and, man, are there some things about Huntington’s), it’s passed down between families, and if one of your parents has it, you have a 50/50 chance of getting it. If you have the genetic marker that says you possess the gene, you will get it. There’s no question of that.
A test for those genetic markers was developed in 1993, so Palka has spent all of her life knowing that she might get Huntington’s and most of it knowing that she can test for it. Palka has already taken the test when the film opens, she’s just preparing to find out the results. The premise may sound a bit gimmicky, but the final result is not, it’s a spare and striking documentary that demonstrates some of the best and most basic elements of the medium: finding a true story, a real story, and then telling it well.
I’ve never shied away from spoilers before – I really find them kind of fun – but digging up spoilers on a documentary, and such a personal one at that, seemed wrong. I tried anyway. During Sundance, I worked the film into conversation among friends and colleagues in the hopes that someone had seen it and would tip their hand with some comment: “oh, it’s so sad!” “oh, it’s so wonderful!” Oh, it’s so…something. I was afraid. I Googled. I went prowling. I didn’t find anything, so when it finally came time to watch the damn thing (HBO premiered the short, which clocks in at just under half an hour, earlier this week), I didn’t have my spoilers. I didn’t know.
The point of The Lion’s Mouth Opens isn’t the outcome or the end or the conclusion – and there are no tricks here, the film tells you the result of the test about halfway through – but the road there. It’s a cliche, but cliches are cliches because they’re true (or most of the time they are, you understand), but the film is a journey-not-the-destination type endeavor. The intimacy and bravery that Palka put on display in Good Dick is all here, but this time, it’s unabashedly real. It’s almost too real. I cried the entire time.
You should watch The Lion’s Mouth Opens, and you shouldn’t know how it ends. It’s not about how it ends anyway. It can’t be.
The Lion’s Mouth Opens is playing on HBO this month.