"Does a 'pain-free' existence sound pretty great to you? Well, think again!"
SCREENED AT THE 2005 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: As someone who once suffered from serious and brain-meltingly awful toothaches, I know a little bit about physical pain and how much I hate it. People naturally assume that pain is a bad thing, but think about it for a second: let's say you were born without the ability to feel pain. Sounds great at first, doesn't it? Wrong!A Life Without Pain allows us to visit with three young girls, each of whom were born without the ability to feel pain. And we quickly learn what a terrible affliction it actually is.
A small child who cannot feel pain is apt to bang their head repeatedly, stick fingers into eye sockets, and mangle their own lips and tongue once those teeth start coming in. Without the negative reinforcement that comes with physical distress, this poor kid has no idea the damage they're doing. Pain also serves as a stern and effective teacher. A toddler needs to stick his pinky in a wall socket one time before he learns how unpleasant it will be. And then the lesson is programmed into baby's brain: avoid those wall sockets! A child who cannot feel pain never gets these lessons, and needless to say, they're pretty important ones to learn.
From Minnesota to Norway to Germany, Gilbert introduces us to three families that couldn't possibly be more different -- aside from the fact that each has a daughter suffering from "anencephaly." This is a rare neurological disorder that prevents physical pain from traveling into the brain, which means that an excited young kid can bonk her head (hard!) on a coffee table and bounce back up like nothing happened. But if you've ever had a child who managed to break an arm or a leg, you surely understand how valuable it is when that unlucky child starts howling! Imagine your kid running around on a broken ankle - and he didn't even know it.
Director Melody Gilbert presents these special kids with no discernible degree of pity or praise; she's mainly interested in sharing the facts and the real-life experiences related to this rare disease, which makes A Life Without Pain as poignant as it is informative. Once you get past the outright strangeness of this ailment you'll start to empathize with the subjects and admire their families.
A Life Without Pain works because it sheds some light on a rare and fascinating ailment while never resorting to sappy sentimentalism to up the "awwww" factor. By the time you're done visiting these families, you'll feel sincere sympathy for the kids, true admiration for their parents and siblings, and probably a dose of appreciation for your own ability to feel pain -- as crazy as that might sound.Gilbert opens her film with a quote from Aristotle: "We cannot learn without pain." She then spends the next 80 minutes illustrating this point in a most fascinating fashion. So the next time you find yourself suffering from a really nasty toothache, you should be thankful for that early-warning system that we all take for granted. And then go see your dentist.