Independent Film Festival Boston opened last night at the Somerville Theatre with Stumped, an incredibly moving documentary that was previously shown at the festival in its larval form several years back in the shorts program. Frankly, it might have been the perfect way to kick off the festival this year, as its messages seemed to provide a beautiful uplift to the negativity swirling in the air of the Trump Era, a negativity actually addressed by festival organizer Brian Tamm in his pre-show remarks. If anything expresses the sentiments he was trying to pass on to the crowd, that we need empathetic and beautiful cinema to help move the hearts and minds of people in the audience to action or to openness, they really couldn’t have chosen a better film.
Stumped tells the story of Will Lautzenheiser, a Boston local and film professor who, after a lengthy battle against a bizarre infection, had his arms and legs amputated in order to save his life. The doc runs of the course of several years in his life, in which Lautzenheiser gradually adjusts to his newfound predicament with the help of his partner and others, does plenty of physical therapy, and finds a new calling as a stand-up comedian. Everything seems to settle into a new normal, until he hears from doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital about an experimental procedure which might potentially give him a new set of arms, taken from a donor (and the documentary doesn’t shy away from the history of organ donation, as well as the ethical issues surrounding it). And so, Lautzenheiser decides that he wants to undergo the procedure, and if you’ve watched the news in the past couple of years, you might know how this story ends, or perhaps you’ve seen him yourself, him being the very definition of a human spoiler.
Director Robin Berghaus wisely homes in on Lautzenheiser’s attitude, highlighting his playfully self-deprecating stand-up comedy sets. They’re truly quite funny (every one of his jokes killed at the Somerville Theatre, especially his gag video about the similarities between him and a housecat), and it’s a shame that Lautzenheiser doesn’t know if he’ll return to the mic in the aftermath of his surgeries. Berghaus uses his humor much in the same way that he does: As a way to comfortably break down the barriers between how people approach someone who is differently abled than themselves, just as one of the film’s interview subjects mentions. His cheerful disposition is perhaps the best argument in favor of his use as an inspirational figure, something that Lautzenheiser himself sees as sort of reductive, but Berghaus never stoops to that low — she’s carefully empathetic to everyone surrounding him as well.
Plenty of time is devoted to the wonderful support network Will has surrounding him: A devoted twin brother (a particularly novel segment involves the brother discussing the psychological toll it had on him as well), a loving partner, committed friends and comedy partners, each striving for Lautzenheiser to have the best possible life, regardless of his physical state. At one point, right before Lautzenheiser is due to have his surgery, his partner Angel tells the filmmakers about his own personal doubts about having transplants if he himself were ever to get them. He wouldn’t want to use the immunosuppressants required in order to keep the transplants from taking, but he never once claims that his way is the right way for Lautzenheiser. There’s an incredibly beautiful b-story about devotion running throughout this film, and it’s astonishing how much emotion is packed into Stumped’s 72 minutes. The scene in which a Brigham’s representative reads a letter from the donor’s parents to Lautzenheiser and an assembled crowd might be one of the most emotionally intense scenes in a documentary released this year.
If there’s one gripe to be had about the film, it’s that we don’t get to see much of Lautzenheiser’s work as a filmmaker, aside from 30 seconds of footage near the start. Perhaps that might add just a little bit more depth to his portrayal, but it seems there may be an easy fix on the horizon. In the Q&A, Lautzenheiser mentioned that he was working on a short film paying tribute to the young man whose arms currently sit at the end of his elbows, and one has to hope Berghaus includes this work in the final cut of the film.
As it stands, though, Berghaus has crafted a stirring, funny and deeply felt film about a fascinating person, and one can only hope that it’s able to make its way to a larger audience.
Independent Film Festival Boston runs from April 26 to May 3. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and @Vanyaland617 for updates throughout the fest.