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California teenager Regina Nicholson leaves an affecting cinematic testament in Farewell to Hollywood, which she worked on with documentarian Henry Corra during the last two years of her life. A cinephile struggling not just with cancer and chemo but the emotional needs of the adults around her, Regina has a teen’s tenacious sense of mission — I will make a feature film before I die — that by itself might or might not have been a reason for outsiders to watch the result. Sadly, dramas compounded by this mission raise the stakes greatly, producing a story with substantial value for families affected by illness in this way.
In one of a few instances where more explicit storytelling would be appreciated, the film gives only the vaguest explanation of how Corra (who has a half-dozen feature docs under his belt) met the aspiring filmmaker and agreed to help her make a movie, soon becoming perhaps her closest friend. But it’s clear in establishing her cinephilia, taking us into a bedroom plastered with posters and lined with DVDs; clips from Pulp Fiction and Apocalypse Now are deployed smartly through the doc to show how her favorite films resonate with her troubles.
It may be a cliche to admire the bravery of someone facing rough medical procedures. But as we watch Regina joke through tears during the too-many stabs required to insert an IV, one inevitably thinks in those terms. Corra shows just enough scenes of wrenching pain to make his point, while focusing instead on resiliency and the spirit embodied in Nicholson’s winning, snaggletoothed smile.
The directors strive for balance also regarding the patient’s parents, who initially support her filmmaking project but find it hard not to be jealous of the time she’s spending away from them. Intellectually they know a 16 or 17-year-old girl needs to spread her wings, but they can’t forget how little time they may have left to spend with her. Over the course of the project, they crack under this pressure, making things vastly more difficult for their daughter in ways that, from the film’s perspective, are either cruel or crazy.
As for their growing concerns about the teen’s bond with her much older filmmaking partner, Farewell insists there’s nothing inappropriate about the friendship while (intentionally, it seems) leaving just enough unsaid to encourage those inclined to disagree.
One hates to acknowledge that there are so many stories like this to be told that this could become a documentary genre. But this film complements rather than duplicating the recent fest title Butterfly Girl, which also refused to settle for generic notions of bravery and endurance to hone in on an individual teen’s specific experience of illness. Both offer painful but needed lessons about how parents and healthy friends can support those whose trials they can barely comprehend, even while grappling with their own anguish.
Production company: Corra Films
Directors: Henry Corra, Regina Nicholson
Screenwriters: Henry Corra, Kimberley Hassett, Regina Nicholson
Producers: Jeremy Amar, Henry Corra
Executive producers: Lance Armstrong, Doug Ulman, David Alcaro, Henry Corra
Director of photography: Henry Corra
Editor: Kimberley Hassett
No rating, 102 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival