Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
MSNBC reporter and director Richard Lui’s new documentary Unconditional takes an intimate look at those in need of care, along with the loved ones who provide it. The film is clearly personal, as one of the subjects is Richard’s father Stephen. Stephen’s eight-year battle with Alzheimer's is documented in this film, and is where it begins. However, it's not just about Stephen’s struggles — as the film focuses on Richard, Rose, Rob and Kristen who care for Stephen. Richard approaches this story as a way to look at others who are going through various medical conditions and those that help them. It’s an insightful and emotional ride that covers a long time with its three main subjects.
Luke Bushatz (who has PTSD and TBI), his wife Amy, and their two sons are the second strand of the interwoven narrative the documentary tells. Kate Hendricks Thomas (who was diagnosed with breast cancer), her husband Shane, and their son are the third. Richard weaves the three stories together easily, allowing the audience to learn about their conditions, the needs that weigh on everybody involved, and the ways they deal with all of the above. It’s not all observational footage and interviews, as there is a lot of journalistic research behind the information being presented. For those moments, the film uses graphics to illustrate the statistics. Luke’s story is supplemented with B-roll of the war in Afghanistan, some jarring video footage of IED explosions, and graphic representations of the impact on the human body. It’s a great compilation of the various elements one would expect from a documentary.
One of the most impactful elements of the documentary is the amount of time captured of each of its subjects. There are many ups and downs that the audience experiences with the families. Shane shares his fear of losing his wife. The movie sets this up, showing the outside of their house with the voice-over from Shane saying they bought the rocking chairs we are looking at to grow old together in, and now knowing that won’t happen. It’s hard not to get choked up at that moment, and the filmmaking only helps emphasize the emotions we will feel at such revelations. Some may call this emotional manipulation a bad thing, but the emotions this film pulls from the viewer are clearly earned. Richard clearly has a strong sense of storytelling and can use that to maximum effect.
Unconditional is a needed film right now. It’s a reminder that sometimes we have to change the way we love. Each subject in the film was all in with their situations, but then their situations took a dramatic turn that required an adjustment. It is never easy, but it is possible for everyone to find a balance with their roles. Sometimes, the movie is inherently sad, but it is a reminder to embrace the moments we have with the ones we love, and keep loving them. Unconditional is extremely candid and brings the plight of many through the stories of these three families.
Unconditional will be available on PBS starting May 1 and in theaters beginning May 3.