The Girl With Half a Face: TV Review

Discovery Fit & Health
A restrained, informative and emotional look at the difficult reality of living with an extreme deformity.

Viral video star Sarah Atwell's struggle with her facial abnormality continues in a documentary about a life-changing surgery.

In August of 2012, 16-year-old Sarah Atwell posted a video on YouTube that went viral. In it, the Canadian teen used flashcards to make viewers aware of her struggle with a debilitating facial tumor -- caused by the genetic disease neurofibromatosis -- and the bullying that has accompanied her all her life. In the wake of so many news stories about teens taking their own lives because of bullying, the video caught fire, and Atwell was profiled by a number of media outlets.

As the Discovery Fit and Health documentary The Girl With Half a Face chronicles, that publicity bought Atwell some freedom from the evil taunts and threats that had become a constant echo in the halls of her school, but also brought with it a number of false friends and even a boyfriend, who wanted to use her because of her connection to fame. 

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But as one of her facial surgeons says in the program, despite all of this, Atwell is an extremely well-adjusted girl, who has a surprisingly positive outlook even when told by classmates she has nothing to live for, and should kill herself. It's understandable, of course, that she wants what most every teenager desires: to be their definition of normal. Though she has undergone several small surgeries in the past to try and alleviate some of the pain and difficulty caused by the tumor (which makes it hard for her to eat, hear and see), the overall effect has never been dramatic enough to make her feel like anything other than the names she's called at school.

The restrained approach taken in the documentary is necessary -- it would be too easy for the program to delve into exploitation. Instead, Atwell is introduced, along with those closest to her (a kind mother and step-father, a hearing impaired older brother, a cousin who is her only friend, and two older neighbors who emotionally support the family), and the first half hour is devoted to getting to know Atwell and her world better. A family vacation before the major surgery, that Atwell hopes will drastically improve her looks, helps give insight to Atwell's life, both with those who care about her, and in regards to strangers who stare (the provocative choice of title of course is another matter). 

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Still, The Girl With Half a Face keeps from over-dramatizing or focusing in on moments regarding those who point and whisper about Atwell's condition, and instead spends time showing her work as a classroom helper where the children there all adore her and say matter-of-factly, "she's just different," with an implied, "so?" The effect is heartening, especially after hearing details of the horrors she has had to endure.

Atwell does go through with the difficult surgery in the end, and the results are dramatic. But in a larger sense, the show is tied closely in with the problem of bullying. Atwell wants the surgery to make her look better, though she also knows that ultimately doesn't have any bearing on bullying. In one of the many references to what Atwell (and other teens) have faced so publicly, one teacher says of bullying: "We don't see it." She goes on to talk about how it's subversive and anonymous, which makes it so hard to fight. Atwell, though, has developed her own ways of dealing with it. 

The Girl With Half a Face is meant to be both quasi-scientific (it explains her condition and the details of the surgery to correct it) as well as emotional, and it succeeds. TLC (which will be running an encore) was once filled with programming like this, but has over time moved away from the informational to the sideshow. Atwell is out to prove she is anything but, and the documentary respects that. Her struggle is both a metaphor and a literal reminder of the realities and consequences of bullying. Though Atwell's surgery is not the answer to that, it is part of a continuing conversation about what coping looks like, and how even a girl with half a face can find her own version of peace.