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No one can predict how any of us will respond to a dire medical diagnosis, but James Arthur Ragan met the challenge with exceptional grace and fortitude. He was a rising tennis star on the international circuit when, at age 13, he learned he had osteosarcoma, a rare and incurable form of bone cancer. The next year, after the first of many surgeries, he traded the tennis court for the golf course, and excelled in that sport, too. As the title of an intimate documentary portrait indicates, Ragan didn’t live long beyond his teens, but Until 20 makes clear that he embraced life until the end, and worked tirelessly to rally people around the need for research dollars focused on pediatric cancer.
Filmmakers Geraldine Moriba (herself a sarcoma survivor) and Jamila Paksima, who received the Audience Award Honorable Mention for Documentary Feature at the recent Napa Valley Film Festival, pay tribute to Ragan and his undeniable zest for life, but they’re not interested in lip-service bromides. They look directly at the ordeal that he and his family faced — even when their cameras are shut out of the immediate situation. A clear-eyed but harrowing family conversation, caught only on audio behind a doctor’s office door, is in many ways the heart of the film: It encapsulates the imprecise medicine, second-guessing and impossible tradeoffs that patients must confront as they hold on to the chance of remission and weigh the debilitating effects of harsh meds against quality of life.
But there are also lyrical interludes, including striking underwater sequences, shot by Frazier Nivens, and wordless scenes that place the Ragans in the midst of art installations. While these thoughtfully crafted additions don’t entirely avoid self-consciousness, there’s no question that they provide a hopeful antidote to the fluorescent-lit examining rooms that take up so much of their subject’s young life.
In interviews for the film, Ragan’s doctors and nurses speak about the disease, the treatment, and his spiritedness and generosity with other patents. But above all, this is the story of a family’s experience as a united front. Together they navigate a medical system whose research initiatives don’t prioritize pediatric diseases, and whose protocols for Ragan’s illness still rely on drugs from the 1970s, as one healthcare practitioner notes.
James and his mother, Gloria, forge an especially close bond on the 200-mile drives from their home in Corpus Christi, Texas, to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. With six surgeries in seven years and endless rounds of chemo and radiation, those treks are not infrequent. But dad Jim and sister Mecklin are always there for him as well; managing his disease is a family priority, with Mecklin changing her college plans to accommodate his treatment schedule.
Affable and unpretentious, Ragan calls the clinical approach to his multiplying tumors a game of “whack-a-mole with my body.” Though he doesn’t deny succumbing to dark and angry moods, in the film he never expresses an iota of self-pity. Making the most of every moment, he and his family form a foundation, Triumph Over Kid Cancer, and in the process of promoting the cause he befriends Jack Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara. The emotions playing across Nicklaus’ face while he listens to Ragan address a crowd say plenty about the young man’s effect on people.
Through it all, Ragan remains a ferocious competitor, at the tee and the card table. At Rice University, he begins his first real romance, with Victoria Alvarez-Arango, just before experiencing new physical setbacks. In one of their text conversations, quoted in onscreen graphics, he calls it “a cruel joke that we met at the end of my life.”
The comments of friends and colleagues help to round out the portrait of Ragan, but after a point they’re almost superfluous; he comes across with disarming transparency, in old footage as well as the new material that finds him addressing life-and-death questions with remarkable clarity and equanimity.
In granting the filmmakers access to their story, the Ragans clearly found a platform for the thoughts and emotions that increasingly urgent circumstances left them little time to express or explore. A different sense of urgency continues after James Ragan’s death, focused on the thousands of children who are still living with cancer. By helping to spread his message about the unaddressed needs of those kids, Until 20 furthers Ragan’s legacy. But it’s also a fond remembrance of someone who never lost his sense of humor — someone who insisted that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” be played at his funeral.
Venue: Napa Valley Film Festival
Production companies: Until 20 LLC, Paksima Productions
Directors: Geraldine Moriba, Jamila Paksima
Screenwriters: James A. Ragan, Geraldine Moriba
Producers: Geraldine Moriba, Jamila Paksima
Directors of photography: Christopher Beauchamp, Steve Buckwalter
Editors: Steve Buckwalter, Dita Gruze
Composer: John Piscitello
Not rated, 84 minutes
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