“Take off your wig and stay awhile” might be an apt subtitle for director Matt Creed’s debut feature, Lily, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, based on the real-life experiences of co-writer and lead actor Amy Grantham, explores the immediacy of life after surviving breast cancer for Lily, a youthful New York artist.

“What are your big plans now?” everyone wants to know as Lily nears the end of her radiation treatment.

Her much older boyfriend suggests they take a trip. Her mother — also a breast cancer survivor — acts as if it’s the most important decision Lily can make and yet doesn’t remember what she did to celebrate her own survival. Lily’s doctor encourages her to take it one day at a time. And her best friend, the most congenial of the cast — besides Lily herself — steers Lily back to her art and Patrick, a guy she once “fucked over.”

Lily doesn’t know what she’s going to do yet. And it comes as no surprise, for she has yet to grow up. When most in their late 20s are proverbially “finding themselves,” Lily’s life is saddled with chemotherapy and radiation treatments — a deadly disease that kills more women in the United States than any other cancer, with the exception of lung cancer. And worse yet, she was physically and emotionally alone while facing the treatments that charred her and made her hair fall out. It is a multifaceted story of estrangement, unfolding in slow, meditative scenes often filled with painful silence.

Creed, who notes being influenced by directors Jim Jarmusch and John Cassavetes, is skillful at taking a single object or emotion or gesture and layering it with a depth of meaning so tempered and poignant that the rest of the plot dissolves into a supporting role. The cinnamon colored wig Lily dons in public is symbolic of the detached, isolated nature of being a survivor and serves as an emotional shield that protects her from human injury, be it from her lover (she switches to a starlet’s blonde wig when she seduces him), her “stepchildren,” her mother or her friends. Wearing a wig that she no longer needs enables the strawberry blonde, sprite-like figure — a cross between Sandy Duncan and Mia Farrow — to put life on hold until she figures out what comes next.

Lily seeks comfort in a city of 8.5 million people, where one can disappear yet never feel quite alone. Lacking her own voice, Lily is a bystander to life — observing people from her fire escape, becoming enchanted with huge iridescent soap bubbles created by a street performer, or recording a distraught man who screams the childhood phrase, “step on a crack and break your mother’s back” as he jumps violently and repeatedly on top of a sidewalk crack. Lily smiles — a foreshadowing of her detached rage boiling just beneath the surface.

Creed masterfully juxtaposes the earth-shattering reverberations of the radiation machine with the stark echoes of the flight of stairs Lily climbs home after each treatment. And it is here that Lily’s detached self is most profound. By the time she arrives at her door, we, too, are exhausted and dread what she’ll discover inside. In need of warmth and tenderness, she invariably arrives home to even greater vacuity; she attempts to fill her lack with tap dancing, preparing meals and cutting tiny objects from magazines with the precision of a surgeon. But they are stopgap measures that provide little long-term comfort.

Grantham, whose only other film credit is the indie film, Writer’s Block (2010), is at her best when portraying Lily’s immaturity, whether it be splashing in a bathtub with dinosaurs and bubbles, ruining a dinner party with too much drink and the tongue of a Scorpio, or welcoming a potential job offer with a hug instead of a handshake. This is where Grantham shines like a star yet to be discovered. But adult emotions — anger, passion and drive — seem, at times, to fall short of reaching their full potential. At one point, Lily is walking across a busy street, where an impatient driver nearly runs her over. (One might infer that she has finally succeeded in becoming invisible.) Lily does have an incensed outburst — shaking her fists and yelling at whomever will listen — but it seems unnatural, forced. As if Lily (or Grantham) is unable to get in touch with her rage, the deepest of human emotions more often than not driven by fear.

This moment — where Lily faces possible death amidst hundreds of anonymous bystanders — is the turning point, and one that comes unhurriedly in the film. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For those who have survived cancer, Lily’s transformation speaks to the arduous journey of facing death and then being given a second chance at life — a conundrum that forces one to turn inward before returning anxiously, perhaps, to a pre-death sentence world. For those who haven’t had death at their doorstep, Creed’s film opens the door, just a crack, allowing us to understand in the most tender of ways just how difficult the journey can be to return to life.

As Grantham notes in a recent interview with Karen Kemmerle of the Tribecca Film Festival: “It’s a must-see film because it’s something everyone can relate to, about being at a point in your life where you’re not sure what you’re doing, or if you made the right decisions, or how you even got there. Lily takes time to stop and evaluate herself while making some hard but brave choices. All in all, it’s very human.”

Once Lily is finally able to take off her wig, we are assured that she’s planning to stay awhile. And that is the strength of human survival.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Lily” opened on April 20 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. “Lily” will be screening on Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at the AMC Loews Village 7 Theatre (located at 66 3rd Avenue, at 11th Street). For ticket information, please visit http://www.tribecafilm.com/festival.

Featured image: Pictured: Lily, Amy Grantham; Aaron, Simon Chaput in the feature film “Lily.” Photo Credit: Brett Jutkiewicz.

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