Review by Sean Boelman
Some of the most intriguing and powerful stories that we have seen on screen come from the most unexpected places, and the documentary Me to Play tells one such tale. An empathetic tale of perseverance, this is a riveting film that defies the audience’s expectations of what a movie about the theatre should be.
The film follows two actors with Parkinson’s disease who put on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, overcoming the physical and emotional challenges of performing. It’s an extraordinary and inspiring tale, though it never really proves its urgency beyond that of a human interest story.
At an hour and twelve minutes in length, the movie moves pretty nicely, culminating in a sequence of footage taken from the performance. The rights issues that prevented the filmmakers from using too much material from the play actually work in the film’s favor, as it really emphasizes a respect for the performers over the material they are performing.
The movie does a great job of exploring the themes of both coming to terms with one’s own mortality and creating a legacy through artistic expression. The film allows an opportunity for these two celebrated actors to reflect upon their careers and lives in a way that is poetic and moving.
This is, in essence, a two-part character study. The movie has one portion following each of their struggles before having them come together for their common goal of producing the play. Although one of the two actors has a more cinematic story than the other, there are compelling aspects to both.
One of the riskier choices that filmmaker Jim Bernfield makes in his documentary is not focusing on the audience’s familiarity with the subjects. There is a brief introduction to their background as character actors, but Bernfield is much more interested in how these actors continue to develop their craft despite their debilitating condition.
There is a good balance between fly-on-the-wall footage and interviews used to tell the story. Bernfield’s approach may be straightforward, but it’s effective nonetheless. He manages to make a surprisingly riveting movie out of theater, the magic of which is notoriously difficult to capture in cinema.
Jim Bernfield’s documentary Me to Play manages to expand beyond its core niche audience to be an inspirational story of two people who beat the odds. It’s a bit too short for its own good, but the great things it does are worth watching.
Me to Play is now streaming online as a part of the 2021 Florida Film Festival, which runs April 8-22 in Orlando, FL.