Hot Docs

Vicky Review: A Mother Fights for Her Life–and for Women’s Rights

Hot Docs 2023

4 mins read

(Ireland, 88 min.)
Dir. Sasha King
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe


Vicky Phelan finds herself in a terrible situation. She has terminal cancer and learns about it when it’s far too late. To worsen matters, Vicky discovers that she could have done something about it years ago. However, as part of a group of Irish women whose pap smear tests were outsourced to the USA to save  money, her life was cut short due to gross negligence that didn’t convey her results accurately.

Vicky, directed by Sasha King, follows Phelan as she resolves to defy her death sentence. The doctor gives her twelve months to live with chemotherapy and six months without. When Phelan does the math, she realizes that her prospective time on Earth as a healthy, happy, and functional person is roughly the same whether she undergoes aggressive treatment. Instead, she opts for alternative tests because she has nothing to lose.

Phelan summons her courage to fight the system that will deprive her and her family of precious years. A mother to two children, Phelan knows her kids will grow up without her. Her husband will eventually raise them alone, while caring for her, no less, and she’ll miss many milestones. An urgent legal battle ensues as Phelan becomes the face of a fight that saw approximately 200 women suffer due to errors people knew about, but didn’t bother to correct until it was too late.


Nothing Gets in the Way of Vicky’s Message

Vicky admittedly adopts a serviceable no frills, bare bones style as it follows Phelan’s pursuits of health and justice. This is straightforward character-driven filmmaking. Direct address interviews, expert testimonies, and onscreen text deliver the message cleanly and clearly, if bluntly. However, Vicky knows that it doesn’t have time to concern itself with fancy shots. The clock is ticking and King keeps her focus on her hero and her message. The media coverage for her case allows the story to invite larger debates about women’s rights and women’s health care. Phelan addresses how women’s bodies, even mentioning them, make male doctors squirm. But health shouldn’t be taboo when people’s lives are on the line. Phelan and the film use the platform they have to address multiple connected issues.

The material is genuinely compelling and Phelan is a terrific character. She valiantly and courageously assumes her role in a fight she didn’t want. This film is the kind of doc that will and should make audiences infuriated and inspired with equal measure, although the maudlin tinkly piano music veers a bit too overtly sentimental.

Still, Vicky observes the change that one person can make if she sticks to her convictions. By the end of the film, Vicky shrinks considerably in size as the cancer takes its effect. Her stature, though, is grand.

Vicky premiered at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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