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by Jay Seaver

"Some people can (and must) find the humor in everything."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: Unlike a lot of documentaries that necessarily change during the making, "Stumped" handles the fact that its subject's life doesn't stand still worth aplomb. Though it would have likely been a nifty documentary if its subject - a young filmmaker who needed all four extremities amputated after a horrifying infection - had just used stand-up comedy as a way to cope with the new challenges he faced, the fact that he was able to have a dual arm transplant during filming adds new, intriguing material.

Indeed, I believe that a short version with just the first half of the story had been making the rounds for a few years, and I suspect that it's uplifting enough on its own, despite how the opening, where Will Lautzenheiser feels a pain two days into his job teaching film at Montana State University and, by the time he gets to the emergency room, this group A staph infection has snowballed into toxic shock, necessitating the amputation. It's hard to see anything coming after that as a best-case scenario, but it's arguable that this is what happens: He commits to full-time rehab, learns to accomplish what he can with limited capacity and prosthetic limbs, and eventually takes to the stage at a Boston improv club with jokes nobody else could get away with making. That positive attitude is part of the reason that the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital find him to be an excellent candidate for a transplant, as the rehab for that is tremendously intense.

Stick with the first half of the story, and you've got a fairly strong documentary. It's based around a very personable guy with a likable support network, and both Will and filmmaker Robin Berghaus have a good idea of what's entertainingly self-deprecating without being disrespectful of the greater community dealing with that sort of disability, getting genuine laughs rather than ones given begrudgingly because He's So Brave. There are moments of calculated unease, from photos of how quickly and thoroughly the infection destroyed healthy tissue to the understandable discomfort that co-exists with his twin brother's support, but also a willingness to show how WIll managed both simple and complex things that carefully stokes and satisfies the audience's curiosity (and I daresay his handwriting is better than mine). Overall, there's a fine balance between demonstrations of what his rehab and day-to-day is like and the more personal, less technical material.

The introduction of everything in the back half is rather sudden and potentially perilous; for the audience, it can feel like a step back to square one, with Will starting rehab over, while Berghaus has to juggle not just a bunch of new faces (doctors and other transplant recipients), but a lot more facts and medical discussions that will fascinate some of us but unnerve others. It's no longer quite the simple, emotionally-driven picture it was, but it doesn't take long to smooth over this bump; it is, ultimately, about the same thing - it's still Will overcoming challenges in large part due to his good attitude and excellent support system. It is still the same movie, and Berghaus has done an excellent job of splitting it down the middle so that both of its major arcs have room to play out without one dominating the other too much.

One other thing that this shift allows is for a theme that was present in the first to come to the fore in an interesting way. Will admits, quite frequently, to wanting a lot more control than he now has; it occasionally comes out in the form of gross-out gags about just what comedy partner and caregiver Steve Delfino has to help him with, other times as his generally very soft-spoken boyfriend Angel showing visible frustration, especially after Will has tried to lead him through something relatively complicated like cooking. The film is, to a great extent, about a man who wants to be very independent coming to accept that he will need to rely on others' help for a great many things. Receiving the transplant would seem to reverse it, but, in a fascinating way, the opposite happens, as Will realizes that everything he does in the future will be done with the help of his anonymous donor. It's a fascinating transformation for both Will and the film; while both had been getting by with a combination of pragmatism and irreverence, the last minutes of Stumped take a turn into unvarnished sentimentality as Will accepts this change in perspective and attitude.

It's the sort of change that might be sneered at in a narrative film, or even in a less well-constructed documentary. But even though "Stumped" is a small movie - a compact 72 minutes and not much sprawl beyond the one guy - this allows it be focused and informative, and lets the audience genuinely feel all of its big changes, from terrifying start to elevating finish.

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originally posted: 05/16/17 13:42:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2017 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2017 series, click here.

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