Film Review: Be Here Now: The Andy Whitfield Story

"Inspiring" seems much too paltry a word for this important record of one man's battle with cancer which, although unsuccessful, is nothing but uplifting all the way.
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Life can really play cruel tricks, and none was crueler than what befell Andy Whitfield. This physically perfect specimen of masculinity seemingly had it all: a burgeoning star career, after paying his dues, with his brawny assumption of the title role in the Starz TV series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a lovely wife and angelic children (a boy and a girl, naturally), a wonderful home on the beach in Australia. And then, in 2010, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This stirring, inexpressibly sad but uplifting documentary spotlights his "journey"—a term used countless times here—to try to regain wellness. And boy, does he ever try, as we see him and his equally gallant spouse, Vashti, seek out every form of remedy—from holistic to chemo—to battle the cancer invading his body.

The real miracle of Lilibet Foster’s film is that, however much we may know about its inevitable outcome with Whitfield succumbing to the disease in 2011 18 months after being diagnosed, at the heartbreaking age of 39, every frame of it is suffused with a radiant hopefulness and the necessary realization to live every moment to the fullest, as indicated by its title. Be Here Now is anything but a downer experience, and for anyone who has personally gone through a life-challenging illness or known someone who has, it's an incredibly valuable manual of pure survival through certain disaster. It also generates a myriad of questions about medical practices—both traditional and not—especially when Whitfield makes the perfectly reasonable observation that doctors summarily prescribe the same chemotherapy (some 11 rounds of it, in his case) and radiation treatment to most cancer victims when, in actuality, the illness and whatever cures are offered can well strike individuals in wholly individual ways. He was declared cancer-free in June of 2010, only to suffer a relapse by September.

Whitfield remains throughout the film quite noble and real, even with a nosy camera lens invading—like his illness—his deepest, most tortured private moments. The film's richest moments are simple conversations between him and Vashti, in which she gets him to express his feelings about his condition and indefatigably spurs his fighting spirit. Seeing him waste away before your eyes is indeed devastating; in a class with other patients, Whitfield has to perform stretching exercises sitting down, and he appears almost Christ-like by the end, but at no time does this doc ever descend into bathos. Foster maintains at all times a quite extraordinary tact, even when probing into intimacy, in a way to make her film one of the most important and essential documents ever made about the dying process.

After Whitfield's death, a rare, beautiful butterfly appeared at the entrance of his home, to the delight of his wife and kids. Thinking it was the man reincarnated, it gave immeasurable solace to his family, and I do think this film will provide the same kind of succor to many who see it.

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