Film Reviews

Review: ‘Exit Music’

Hot Docs 2018


Exit Music
(USA, 75 min.)
Dir. Cameron Mullenneaux.
International Spectrum (World Premiere)

A young man has to help lead his family accept that he is ready to die in the simple, but sensitive Exit Music, which addresses the end of life as a collective experience. Given a last-minute change from its more flippant original title,_ How Do You Feel About Dying?_, this debut documentary from Cameron Mullenneaux mixes almost three decades worth of home video footage with material shot by the filmmaker as she became involved with the Rice family—parents Ed and Edith and older brother, Devlin—in the last two years of Ethan’s life.

Diagnosed in infancy with cystic fibrosis, Ethan Rice had a relatively normal childhood, but learned young, as he says, not to make long-term plans. He composed music and made stop-motion animated films with his stay-at-home father, Ed, a Vietnam vet suffering from lifelong PTSD. Home movies show that, midst occasional setbacks because of illness, Ethan enjoyed a relatively normal childhood. Older brother Devlin says he sometimes resented Ethan’s special attention, only realizing later how much of a shadow his brother lived under.

As the film begins, Ethan’s already is facing the end. Though kept alive with medication and a 24/7 oxygen tank, his ability to breathe continues to deteriorate. His empathetic doctor, a woman well-versed in end-of-life issues, explains to him on camera that he will have to make a decision about the value of continuing intervention: “Is it helping you live or prolonging your dying?”

Aged 28, Ethan makes the decision to take a sedative and turn off the oxygen machine. The process will be painless, except for the part of convincing his father to accept the choice.

While it addresses the end-of-life decision head-on, Exit Music is more of a memorial than a right-to-die ethical investigation. Much of the focus is on Ethan’s humour and creativity. His stop-motion films typically include mini-dramas featuring GI Joe action figures, reflecting both his father’s war trauma and his own life-long battle for survival (there’s a echo of Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol in the film). Ethan’s music, which provides the score for the film, occasionally leans toward the melodramatic, understandable under the circumstances.

Exit Music screens:
-Sat, May 5 at 5:45 PM at TIFF Lightbox

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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