‘Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope’: Sundance Review

A sturdy information film, sensibly executed.

Forming a companion piece to his recent documentary 'Paper Tigers,' director James Redford's latest explores the identification and treatment of those suffering from adverse childhood experiences.

ResilienceThe Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope, the latest from documentary director-producer James Redford and producer-writer-editor Karen Pritzker, forms a worthy, resonant but somewhat pat companion piece to their previous feature Paper Tigers. Where Paper Tigers focused on a specific Washington State high school and how its principal opted for a therapy-based approach to negative behavior, Resilience more broadly explores how treating those suffering from stress caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can improve kids’ lives, especially in poorer communities. In other words, if Paper Tigers is about the practice, Resilience is on the theory. With 68-minute running time, it doesn’t easily fit easily theatrical or broadcast pigeon holes, but like its stablemate it will likely find an audience through roadshows and word of mouth among intellectually curious parents and those in the caring professions.

The acronym ACE was coined by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti who teamed up to publish an authoritative study in 1998 on how traumatic stress experienced in childhood (especially sexual, emotional or physical abuse but also even living with neglectful parents) usually leads to a whole host of illnesses and self-destructive behaviors later in life, from eating disorders to heart disease, to cancer and suicide. The film’s interviewees and graphics are wont to pump up the superlatives when discussing the study, with some calling it “the most important public health findings of a generation,” and so on, and yet it's also implie that it’s an unjustly overlooked work, when it’s actually quite often cited in the literature on addiction and abuse. That’s the sort of rhetorical oversell which may cause more skeptical viewers to resist the film’s overall, entirely worthwhile message, which is basically that we should be investing in mental health treatments for children as early as possible, even if they are expensive, and supporting their families instead of penalizing them.

Obviously, there are bigger issues as stake about state-subsidized health care and the need for a more joined up, cross-agency approaches to preventative medicine. Amongst the flurry of onscreen graphics delivering digestible statistics, one that lays out that only 5% of the trillion-plus dollars the US spends on health care goes towards prevention is particularly pungent. But the film seems loath to get into deeper political waters.

Instead, it accentuates the positive and focuses on heroic, charismatic individuals working to find practical ways of treating what some research physicians call “toxic stress.” One such good gal is Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician working in San Francisco’s only remaining pocket of poverty, the Bay View/Hunter’s Point area. Extremely telegenic and skilled at encapsulating complex ideas in accessible sound bites, she explains with admirable clarity why dosing kids with Ritalin isn’t always a good idea and why organizations like her own Center for Youth Wellness are needed in greater numbers. (The film sometimes feels uncomfortably like a commercial for her organization.) Elsewhere, Redford includes moving footage of drama therapists working on a program in New Haven, CT., that helps kindergarten kids talk about what’s going on at home and teach them that it’s never alright for someone to hurt them or touch them inappropriately. Shots of letters the kids write to an imaginary confident could make a stone weep.

Animation and graphics by STK Films helps to illustrate key points, although the cartoon characters with their blank empty eyes are a bit disturbing. Editing is brisk and efficient – perhaps too efficient, as the film sometimes feels like in the rush to cram all the subjects interviewed into the 68-minute running time corners had to be cut in explaining the science.

Production companies: A KPJR Films production in association with Artemis Rising Foundation
With: Nadine Burke Harris, Robert Anda, Vincent Felitti, Jack Shonkoff, Laura Lawrence, David Johnson, Laura Porter, Victor Carrion
Director: James Redford
Screenwriter, editor:Jen Bradwell
Producers: James Redford, Karen Pritzker
Executive producers: Karen Pritzker, Regina K. Scully
Co-producer: Dana Schwartz
Cinematographers: John Behrens, Jason Blalock, Luke Buck, John Chater, Jonathan Furmanski, Brian Gurnett, Peter Hutchens, Rich Joy, Chris Kelly, Mike Martin, Tylor Norwood, Bob Richman, Kyle Rooney, Greg SaboPetr Stepanek, Mark Thalman
Composer: Garth Stevenson
Sales: KPJR Films
No rating, 68 minutes