When Banker White’s mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, he did something unexpected: He decided to make a movie about it. Along with his co-director and now-wife Anna Fitch, he observed and interviewed his mother, father, siblings, and his mother’s friends about the effects of her illness over the course of a few years. The resulting documentary, The Genius of Marian, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a heartbreaking and harrowing portrait of a family dealing with disease.

Creative tributes to parents suffering from Alzheimer’s apparently run in the White family. Pam White, Banker’s mother and the film’s subject, starts the film intending to write a book about her own mother, Marian Steele, a celebrated painter who died of Alzheimer’s not long before Pam received her own diagnosis. (The documentary’s name comes from the title of her planned book.) Steele’s paintings — beautiful pieces that often depict family members in loving realism — are scattered throughout the White household and throughout the documentary, harkening back to a happier time.

White, a second-time filmmaker whose previous film followed a band comprised of refugees from Sierra Leone and won multiple awards from film festivals like South by Southwest, also intercuts the documentary with home video footage of his mother from her childhood onwards. He includes clips of her as a model and actress, vivacious and filled with endless possibility.

White’s choice to add in the footage was a smart one. These old clips, saturated as they are with rich color and joy, add an extra layer to the film, both in providing an interesting visual contrast with the current footage, and in showing the film’s subject at her fullest and most capable. The Pam he captures growing increasingly confused has the same big eyes and the same sweet face as the Pam in the old footage. She still retains her kindness and her love for her family, but she has trouble putting together sentences and difficulty dressing herself. He films the former performer with her current just-for-fun singing group, looking lost amongst the other women her age. In addition to Pam’s increasing depression, he captures, honestly and painfully, the reactions of those close to her, especially his father.

The shift in Ed, Pam’s husband, proves to be one of the hardest parts of the movie to watch, but also one of the most thought-provoking. As Pam’s illness progresses, Ed turns from hopeful (thinking that he can take care of her by himself without too much trouble) to resentful (as he has trouble believing that he’s given up all the fun in his life to be a caretaker), to resigned. His transition brings up questions of responsibility and the limits of love, the questions that we hope we never have to face but know we most likely will have to deal with at some point.

In another director’s hands, the film could have easily felt exploitative, and certainly, at times, the amount of pain on display is enough that you can’t believe family members still allowed White to keep filming. Yet somehow, everything is suffused with such love that you understand why no one shouts for White to turn the camera off. White says, in his director’s statement, “I approached this film both as a loving son and a patient observer,” and both of those roles come through in the finished product.

One unexplored question that the filmmaker could have devoted more time to is that of genetics — when Alzheimer’s runs in your family, you must deal with not only the heartbreak of watching it affect a loved one, but the fear of thinking it could affect you too.

Ultimately, titling the film The Genius of Marian feels misleading. The book-writing subplot falls to the background relatively early on, and we never grow to care about Marian the way we care about Pam. Still, these are minor quibbles. Because how could a viewer care about anyone more than Pam, the film’s aching center who retains a magnetism even at her most confused? Though the film is painful to watch, it’s never completely hopeless because of the love Pam and her family share.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“The Genius of Marian” opened at The Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 18.

Featured image: Ed White & Pam White. Photo Credit: Banker White.

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