Beginning With the End: SXSW Review

Thought-provoking short doc that isn't the downer it might appear to be.

A volunteer program sends teens to work in hospices in David Marshall's doc.

AUSTIN -- An emotional introduction to an inspiring volunteer program, David Marshall's Beginning With the End follows a class of high-school seniors who commit time every week to care for dying strangers in a hospice. Though viewers will walk away with some unanswered questions, the sight of open-hearted teens facing realities many people twice their age work to ignore is worth the time. Fest and specialty theatrical bookings would generate good word of mouth and may inspire some to investigate launching similar programs elsewhere.

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English teacher Robert Kane's class, called "Hospice," is an elective. But after a few years in existence, almost every senior in his school takes it, though most are apprehensive at the start. It begins with a "death inventory," in which students are encouraged to list any ways they've encountered death so far. Kane notes that this ritual quickly establishes the "permission" to cry openly, to be more frank about emotions teenagers might hide in most environments. After using dummies to get comfortable with the touching and lifting that will be required, the students are soon placed at local homes for the dying.

We see them work through the worries anyone would have: the fear of hurting someone frail, of saying the wrong thing, of embarrassment on all sides. But these fears pass with surprising speed, and in home-shot diary footage and classroom sessions we witness kids acquiring kinds of insight that will help them in encounters with other sorts of intimidating strangers as well.

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Bonds form between young and old, occasionally in humorous ways. One teen is amused that he can now come home reeking of smoke with impunity, explaining to his mother that he's been sitting in a garage keeping an elderly woman company as she indulges her last vice. More poignantly, one student finds that her own grandmother is dying, and because of this experience can show her family how to handle it.

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The kids are remarkably earnest and open. Many viewers will wonder about their school, which isn't described in the film: It's a private, college-prep school in Rochester, New York, where students are presumably a little better equipped to take on extra emotional challenges. But Kane started the program at a school for those with learning disabilities, where it reportedly was also a success. It's a shame we can't see scenes from that version of the program. But what's here will suffice to prompt all kinds of conversations about the way we deal with death (and don't) in the modern world.

Production Company: Blue Sky Project

Director-Producer-Director of photography-Editor: David B. Marshall

Sales: Diana Holtzberg,

No rating, 63 minutes