'Love Always, Mom': Film Review

Screengrab/Vimeo
Small in scale and artistry, but heartfelt.

Tricia Russo documents her struggle to become a mother while battling cancer in a film more notable for personal emotions than craft.

Tricia Russo's chronicle of her determination to have a child while battling metastatic breast cancer won the audience award for best documentary at the Bentonville Film Festival, where it premiered. It's easy to see why. The response to Love Always, Mom couldn't have been for its filmmaking, which is competent and conventional, more personal diary than cinema. But Russo makes a vivid, understated onscreen heroine as she takes viewers through her intense journey over several years. The emotional connection she establishes through the camera almost makes up for the film's low-tech quality and frustrating lack of context.

Russo's first-person, chronological approach doesn't give away the ending. But that ending is as happy as the story can be, given that it deals with Stage 4 cancer that spread to her brain. Those tumors were removed, and it's reassuring to view her documentary knowing that she is still here.

The film begins with a voiceover from Trish (as everyone calls her) saying, "Ever since I was a little girl, I've wanted to be a mother." That wisely sets up the passion driving the pic, which is so singularly focused on that issue, rather than cancer, that viewers need to buy into Trish's resolve in a big way.

We then follow her and her husband, Greg, as they try to have a child by surrogate. Trish's cancer was so aggressive that there was no time to harvest her eggs before surgery and chemotherapy, and no way to discontinue treatment to have a child.

With startling intimacy, she allows cameras to shoot meetings with doctors, to look over their shoulders as she and Greg sort through possibilities for the egg donor and the surrogate mother, and to tag along when they meet the women they have chosen. Kali, the donor, and Meghan, the surrogate, become onscreen personalities, too. Kali is blond and single, Meghan brunette and married with children of her own, and they create a kind of sisterhood with Trish.

There are even cameras in the room when Kali is about to have her eggs harvested and Meghan about to be implanted with an embryo. Was being filmed at such personal moments a condition of their being chosen? We never hear.

The camerawork is scattershot. Russo enlisted Craig E. Shapiro as her co-director and Bob Geile as director of photography. But some scenes are obviously captured on phones, and in others Trish talks directly to the camera, breaking the fly-on-the-wall illusion.

Greg is present throughout, but uncomfortable. "Excited?" his wife asks when they get some good news. "Yeah," he says, almost shrugging. She explains, "This is how Greg reacts on camera and not in reality." At that moment, he is clearly trying not to be too hopeful about the future, but the documentary chooses not to dwell on his emotional trajectory. Love Always, Mom is essentially a matriarchy, which includes Trish's own supportive, understandably worried mother.

The film would be richer if we knew more about Trish and Greg. After an opening sequence that introduces them, a title card flies by, saying: "Trish became a film executive and Greg a screenwriter." The press notes share what the movie does not, that Trish has worked in development for Disney and Miramax. She is not an everywoman who happened to pick up a camera.

Greg acknowledges that they are lucky to be able to afford surrogacy, and the couple is open about the details: $10,000 for the egg donor, $30,000 for the surrogate, approximately $125,000 in total when other medical and legal fees are added. But we never actually see how they make a living.

Trish's cancer is always in the background, as she gets regular scans and treatments. In one wrenching moment, she wonders when children start making memories, if she might be gone before a child of hers could remember her. But despite many ups and downs, the film is determinedly upbeat. That tone sends the hopeful message Russo intends but has the effect of making the work seem too partial and tailored.

Russo clearly made the movie she wanted to, the movie of her lifetime. She says onscreen that a child would be her legacy. Love Always, Mom feels as if it were created to become part of her legacy, too.

Production company: Cyan Gray Hope Foundation
Directors-screenwriters-producers: Tricia Russo, Craig E. Shapiro
Director of photography: Bob Geile
Editor: Jake Diamond
Music: Bryan Senti

95 minutes