The Heroic Rebirth of a Devastated Community

 

When all is lost, the will to start over is put to the test. For some, it may be too much. But, for others, those who have the fortitude to recover and begin anew, the challenge may be difficult but not insurmountable. So it has been for many of the residents of a community who experienced utter devastation firsthand, a story chronicled in the riveting and moving new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise” (web site, trailer).

On the morning of November 8, 2018, life in the small northern California town of Paradise changed forever. During a red flag fire season warning, the unthinkable happened: A spark from a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) transmission line set the surrounding woodland on fire. That initially small blaze, combined with an ample supply of timber that had dried out from years of drought and strong upper winds, quickly spread the fire. As the flames raced toward the historic community, residents had virtually no time to flee for their lives, let alone most of their possessions, leaving their residences behind to be incinerated. And, despite efforts to evacuate, the catastrophe still claimed the lives of 85 people, some of whom were overcome by fire in their vehicles in a desperate attempt to escape.

When the flames were finally extinguished, Paradise had been, for all practical purposes, destroyed. The community’s 26,000 residents soon found themselves displaced, and, with nearly all of the town’s structures obliterated, the fire-weary survivors had nowhere to go. Some fled permanently, while others were fortunate enough to find accommodations with relatives in neighboring towns. But, for the rest, this marked the beginning of a displacement to temporary facilities that would go on for months – or longer.

One of the largest and deadliest wildfires in state history decimates the historic town of Paradise, California in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise.” Photo © by Noah Berger, courtesy of National Geographic.

“Rebuilding Paradise” chronicles the saga of the townsfolk through this harrowing ordeal. Beginning with the tragedy itself, the film graphically depicts the horror of the fire with terrifying footage shot from within the inferno. It then shows the aftermath, both on the ground and from above, of a blaze that unrelentingly ravaged the landscape. But the bulk of the documentary examines how Paradise residents have managed in the time since the disaster – their attempts at coping psychologically, their efforts to begin the rebuilding process, their campaign to seek monetary damages from the utility company responsible for the firestorm (aided by consumer advocate Erin Brockovich-Ellis) and their quest to establish new lives for themselves.

Director Ron Howard tells the story of Paradise through the lens of a number of everyday citizens. There’s Police Officer Matt Gates, who played a pivotal role in helping to evacuate Paradise residents on the day of the fire and in assisting in organizing events to boost the morale of the community after the tragedy. School Superintendent Michelle John and her husband, Phil, chairman of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council, worked tirelessly to help get the town’s schoolchildren into makeshift classrooms and to orchestrate ceremonies for the high school’s graduating seniors. Steve “Woody” Culleton, the 74-year-old self-described town drunk who eventually recovered and went on to become mayor, helped lead the charge for homeowners seeking to rebuild their residences, plowing through the seemingly endless red tape that only compounded an already-difficult situation. School psychologist Carly Ingersoll took on the role of crisis counselor to assist students in coping with their circumstances, a responsibility made more difficult by her own trauma, having nearly perished in the fire herself.

In addition to those who played such crucial roles during and after the ordeal, the film profiles those seeking to shape what’s to come. Graduating high school seniors Zach Boston and Brendan Burke, representatives of what is hoped to be the future of Paradise, introspectively reflect on what they lost – and what they hope to regain – as their community attempts to rebuild. Pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder, who helps manage the surrounding forests, particularly where carefully coordinated controlled burns are concerned, speaks to the importance of astute stewardship of the woodlands that make the area such a desirable place to live – and how to keep it safe from future catastrophes. And then there are the families, represented here by Justin and Kayla Cox and Krystle Young and Marcus Nelson, who have been displaced and are looking to make fresh starts, despite the many hardships they face with living space, employment and even marital discord, traumas brought on by a disaster that they never foresaw.

The aftermath of the November 2018 wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California reveals a community in ashes, as seen in the gripping new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

The film also reveals problems that most viewers probably never thought about. For example, there’s the severe environmental impact that has resulted from the release of enormous amounts of toxic chemicals dispersed by the fire. These substances, such as benzene, have become embedded in the ash that coats the landscape, poisoning the soil and even sinking down into the groundwater, making it unsafe for drinking, showering and cleaning, a problem even affecting the few who were fortunate enough not to have lost their homes in the fire. On top of that, asbestos released from older structures that burned now makes certain parcels of land, such as the site of one of the town’s destroyed schools, too dangerous to enter without hazmat suits. Obviously the cleanup effort here involves more than just the removal of charred debris.

Complicating matters even further are the bureaucratic nightmares that have stifled the rebuilding process. Issues involving FEMA, for example, have hindered the approval of permits for new homebuilding, problems brought about by questions involving regulations and, in turn, the funding to comply with them. Indeed, how can residents begin to move ahead if they can’t even get out of the starting blocks? As if there weren’t enough stress in residents’ lives already.

However, despite these many challenges, there’s always the human spirit to counteract them, and residents certainly have plenty of that in reserve, as evidenced in the film. They know what it was like to have found paradise, and they certainly don’t want to see it lost forever. Rebuilding Paradise may take a Herculean effort, but mankind has done this before – and there’s no reason why it can’t be done again here, making it possible for Paradise to be restored once more.

Paradise Police Officer Matt Gates played a pivotal role in helping to evacuate his community during the deadly wildfire that destroyed the historic northern California town as chronicled in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Throughout history, man has sought to establish a utopian way of living in a setting that reflects those values. And, over the years, a number of films have attempted to depict this undertaking, such as director Frank Capra’s legendary classic, “Lost Horizon” (1937). So it’s indeed quite heartening that the founders of this historic northern California town would choose the name “Paradise” to characterize the effort they undertook in building and growing their community. However, as the devastation of the fire proved, “paradise” is something precious that requires committed protection to preserve and sustain its existence, for it can be all too easily lost and difficult to recapture.

Rebuilding a burned-out community is indeed a daunting task. With roughly 95% of Paradise destroyed, there’s much to be replaced to restore the town to what it once was. Overcoming the grief associated with this loss alone is a feat calling for extraordinary effort. But, as debilitating as this might seem, this tragedy also provides an opportunity for rebirth, a chance to not only re-create the Paradise that was lost, but to make one that’s even better than before, one that learns from the mistakes of the past to usher in a bright future. To some, that may seem unlikely given what the community is up against. But, for others, it’s a venture to be tackled with the same spirit as those who built it in the first place. It’s an endeavor that they believe in, and that’s crucial to their success, for those beliefs are essential in making the outcome happen.

School Superintendent Michelle John joyfully officiates over ceremonies for the 2019 commencement class of Paradise High School, the first group of seniors to graduate after the November 2018 wildfire that destroyed their community, as depicted in “Rebuilding Paradise.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Taking on a venture like this is staggering. While it’s true that California has experienced some huge and horrendous fires over the years, virtually nothing compares with this blaze. The aftermath of this incident even calls into question the wisdom of building in a fire zone like this. However, as a number of residents point out, is it wise to establish communities in Tornado Alley, along hurricane-prone seacoasts or in known flood zones? We all have to live somewhere, they contend; why should fire risk be considered any more off-limits than the potential damage that can be caused by any of these other disasters?

To rebuild the town in the wake of the fire and to eliminate some of the hazards that contributed to the devastation, those responsible for devising solutions must seek to overcome limitations that may have previously held them back or that they couldn’t see past in coming up with workable answers to these challenges. By stretching their vision and looking for previously untried (or even previously unconceived of) ideas, they have an opportunity to overcome the pitfalls of the past and to establish new paths for the future. The residents of Paradise set an inspiring example for those facing similar dilemmas – and opportunities.

It’s also important to note that this is a collaborative effort, one where all the residents of Paradise contribute their individual resources rebuild the town. It even includes the input of those who were part of the problem, such as PG&E; after all, the residents of a new Paradise are still going to need electricity, albeit power that’s delivered in a safer manner. For instance, according to a company representative appearing in the film, the antiquated transmission lines that sparked the blaze were built in 1921, and footage shows how easily infrastructural elements like wooden poles in this outmoded system can catch fire. To prevent that from recurring, the company has committed to rebuilding its delivery network with underground lines, a huge and expensive restructuring of its power grid. But, then, tremendous tragedies require tremendous solutions, as this venture illustrates.

Former Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton rebuilds the home he lost in the firestorm that destroyed the historic northern California town of Paradise, as chronicled in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

This co-creative effort has other dimensions to it as well. In addition to the physical build-out of the community’s homes, businesses and infrastructure, there’s also the quest to seek justice for the damage done by the responsible parties, especially for those families that experienced loss of life. The film illustrates this through one woman’s effort to seek restitution for the loss of her elderly incapacitated father, whose charred wheelchair was found in what was his garden as he made a failed attempt at escape. If we’re responsible for what we manifest, that includes those who run major corporations. Such entities must be held accountable for their actions, especially when they carry consequences that affect others.

In a larger sense, the film also raises the question of global climate change and how it may have contributed to this calamity. While the film doesn’t belabor this point, it nevertheless points out how, as citizens of the Earth, we must all work together in addressing this issue. Using footage from a variety of natural disasters from around the world, the film shows how incidents like the Paradise fire are just one example of the devastation that’s being wrought by these tragedies – and in greater frequency and intensity. If we truly all profess to care about the paradise that is this planet, we had better start getting our acts together on this front before it’s too late.

To a certain degree, evidence of working on this can be seen in the efforts of pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder, whose controlled burn program is designed to clear the forest floor of underbrush that can easily ignite during wildfires and send embers up into the air where it can ignite flames on mature trees. This may be only one small step, but it’s part of the larger effort that is this joint undertaking. It may not seem like much, but everything contributes – and helps – in the greater scheme of things.

While the devastation that came out of this tragedy was indeed staggering, there were the proverbial silver linings, too. For example, when the fire encroached on the home of Michelle and Phil John, they received an invitation to come stay with Michelle’s cousin Roni and her husband, Shin, with whom they had been embroiled in a 20-year family feud – an invitation that came unsolicited from Roni and Shin. Even though the Johns’ home was damaged but left standing, Michelle and Phil accepted the invitation and moved in, ending the feud, healing the old wounds and prompting the two couples to become best friends. Who says something good can’t come out of something bad?

In the end, it’s truly inspiring to see what community residents have undertaken to rebuild their town. It’s a reflection of the pioneer spirit that went into its initial establishment. But, perhaps even more importantly, it’s illustrative of the human spirit that seeks to overcome its adversities, no matter how difficult, to recover our losses and to create anew. And, to put an exclamation point on this effort, the name “Paradise” reinforces what its residents are attempting to build, a name that says it all when it comes to characterizing what they’re genuinely trying to manifest for themselves and their progeny.

The Cox Family, Justin (left) and Kayla (right), take up residence in a mobile home after the wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California claimed their home, a story chronicled in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo by Lincoln Else, courtesy of National Geographic.

Director Ron Howard, in a rare documentary effort, does an excellent job in examining the impact of this deadly wildfire, the widespread fallout that has come in its wake and the heroic campaign to begin again. This heart-wrenching yet hopeful offering details the pain and suffering, along with the little victories, experienced by virtually everyone in the community, as well as their determination to rise from the ashes, literally and figuratively. It’s not often that a documentary will move viewers quite as profoundly as this one does, evoking both tears and joy – and making us appreciate what we have and what we can lose in a heartbeat. “Rebuilding Paradise” is easily one of Howard’s best productions in quite a long time and a film well worth seeing. The picture is available for first-run online streaming and in limited theatrical screenings.

The power to overcome can be quite formidable, greater than many of us know, especially when we put our minds and our beliefs to it. Our resilience under such duress is a testament to the power behind our ability to create, even under the most dire circumstances. There’s a Paradise that exists within each of us, and it’s possible to bring it forth into being if we believe in the notion. The residents of a small California town are proving that, showing the way for the rest of us and, despite the challenges involved – and succeeding.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Waging a War on Discontent

Most of us feel dissatisfied with our lives from time to time. Sometimes we have only a vague sense of what’s irking us, but often we have a clear picture of the irritation. Still, even with such an awareness, we frequently lack an understanding of how to fix the problem. Perhaps looking to the source of that discontent can help us figure out how to implement much-needed change. But, in doing so, we need to know where to look, something that may prove difficult – and surprising – as seen in the delightful and introspective new French comedy-drama, “My Dog Stupid” (“Mon chien Stupide”) (web site, trailer).

Henri Mohen (Yvan Attal) is one discontented guy. The 55-year-old onetime-successful French author hit a home run with a best seller 25 years ago, but he hasn’t written anything worthwhile (or lucrative) since then. True, his first work enabled him to live comfortably in a seaside estate that helped him escape what he saw as the unceasing drudgery of Paris, but there was a trade-off: That villa also became home to Henri and his family, whom he believes have grown progressively ungrateful over the years. With his wife, Cécile (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their four ne’er-do-well adult children, Henri struggles to keep his sanity and self-respect amidst the incessant complaining and tribulations of a dysfunctional family who shows him no appreciation for the generous support and well-heeled lifestyle he has provided them.

So why are Henri’s wife and children so irritating? Well, for starters, there’s Cécile, who never seems satisfied with her life, a nagging, unrelenting discontent that she always seems to find a way to blame on Henri. Then there are his kids: Raphaël (Ben Attal), his eldest, drifts through life, spending his days smoking weed and cruising the internet for porn and women who are all too eager for a party, such as his principal squeeze, Marie-Lise (Lola Marois); Pauline (Adèle Wismes), Henri’s only daughter, who runs through money like water and spends most of her time fawning over her uber-macho boyfriend, Hugues (Oscar Copp), a former soldier who frequently brags about his allegedly heroic exploits in Syria; Gaspard (Panayotis Pascot), a surfer dude who’s barely hanging on in his college studies, even with the coddling assistance of Cécile, who does his homework for him; and Noé (Pablo Venzal), an honor student with a strong social consciousness who seems to have it all together but who also harbors a secret that doesn’t become revealed until authorities show up unexpectedly at the family doorstep one day. Nice relatives.

Once-successful author and discontented family man Henri Mohen (Yvan Attal) seeks to turn his life around through his impulsive adoption of a big, slobbering dog in the delightful new French comedy-drama, “My Dog Stupid” (“Mon chien Stupide”). Photo by David Koskas, courtesy of Distrib Films US.

The only family member who ever gives Henri the time of day is Noé, and even that support eventually becomes compromised for reasons outside of Henri’s control. The rest generally berate or ignore him, showering him with scorn or indifference. That leaves Henri alone with his thoughts much of the time, an opportunity to brood and to occasionally wax nostalgically about the one time in his life when he felt genuinely happy – his days in Rome when he was writing the book that would become his only success. He wishes he could return there and relive those glory days. But such hopes seem like a pipe dream now, leaving him to go back to the tasks that occupy his days – obsequiously fulfilling the family’s never-ending list of inconsequential shopping requests and attempting to write something meaningful.

Matters take a curiously quirky turn, however, when a surprise visitor shows up in Henri’s backyard one rainy evening – a big, slobbering dog that appears to be a stray. The canine, which resembles a shar-pei/mastif mix, wastes no time making himself at home, lumbering through an open door into the family residence and settling in, claiming a couch and gobbling virtually anything he can find to eat. This is in addition to his other voracious appetite: his need to indulge his insatiable libido, a hunger he readily inflicts on the human males he encounters, most notably, of all people, Hugues.

Needless to say, no one is particularly thrilled with the arrival of the unexpected house guest. Cécile, Pauline, Raphaël and Gaspard beg Henri to do something about the dog (just as they always seem to beg him to do something about anything they dislike), but, in this case, even Dad isn’t pleased with this new development. However, Henri’s attitude soon changes when he sees how lovable the dog can be. Admittedly, the pooch isn’t particularly bright, but he’s adorable nonetheless, a trait that becomes apparent when the only household member who takes a liking to him – Noé – manages to bring out his unique canine charm. At this point, Henri takes a shine to him as well and abandons all plans to pawn him off on the local SPCA. Instead, he adopts his newfound friend and names him, appropriately enough, Stupid.

Long-married couple Henri and Cécile Mohen (Yvan Attal, left, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, right) wrestle with the state of their relationship in the introspective French comedy-drama, “My Dog Stupid” (“Mon chien Stupide”). Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

Henri warmly welcomes Stupid into his life. As a longtime dog lover who has been without a canine pal for a while, he’s happy to have one in his life again (his last dog, Marcello, a beloved bull terrier, having been done in by the neighbor’s Doberman, Rommel). But, more than that, Henri sees the dog as a kindred spirit. Stupid was apparently thanklessly abandoned, with no one to care for his needs, for no good reason, circumstances to which Henri can readily relate. What’s more, since the family sees Stupid as an insufferable irritant, Henri’s adoption of his new friend represents a form of payback, a giant middle finger thrust into the faces of his ungrateful wife and children.

Even though Stupid gets on well with Henri and Noé, he’s seen as a royal pain by everyone else – so much so, in fact, that they gradually find reasons for moving out of the house. In some regards, Henri quietly relishes these developments; with fewer people in the house, fewer demands are placed upon him, bringing him closer to retrieving what he believes to be the long-absent happiness he misses so much. But, as the house becomes emptier and emptier, it gives him pause to reflect upon himself, his life and what’s important, an exercise in introspection that proves revelatory. The canine catalyst prompts changes he never envisioned or considered. And now, with new insights in hand, he has an opportunity to reshape his destiny. Indeed, who would have thought so much could come out of adopting a big stinky dog?

By all accounts, Henri would appear to be the stereotypical hen-pecked husband (only, in his case, he would be more appropriately characterized as the stereotypical hen-pecked husband and father). The thoughtless treatment inflicted upon him is ostensibly egregious enough to generate heartfelt sympathy from even the most uncaring of onlookers. So why is this abuse happening to an apparently nice guy, one who is a good provider for his family and, as a successful author, should seemingly engender at least a modicum of respect?

Sunday brunch at the Mohen household turns contentious when family members (from left, Oscar Copp, Lola Marois, Adèle Wismes (back to camera), Ben Attal, Yvan Attal, Charlotte Gainsbourg) debate the future of an unexpected house guest in “My Dog Stupid” (“Mon chien Stupide”). Photo by David Koskas, courtesy of Distrib Films US.

The bad treatment Henri is being subjected to has been going on for a long time. As much as he dislikes it, he’s almost become used to it, accepting it as “just how things are.” But, in order for such circumstances to become so ingrained and persistent, something must be triggering them and enabling their perpetuation, a state of affairs that would appear to have been in place for quite some time. To that end, then, if Henri is convinced that this is his lot in life, then he must believe it to be so. And recognizing that is crucial, for those beliefs make this outcome possible. If one buys into the notion of “Life is what you make of it,” this would seem to bear that out.

Henri’s case is indeed a curious one. One can’t help but ask, “Why would anyone want to experience an existence like this?” For all practical purposes, Henri has found himself in a state of unrelenting victimhood, one in which he’s continually taken advantage of, mercilessly put down and subjected to the ongoing capricious whims of others. Yet, at the same time, he’s thoroughly dissatisfied and would love to fight back. What’s going on with this seemingly contradictory conundrum?

In many cases, difficult circumstances like these are often part of learning a particular life lesson, despite the hardships involved. Indeed, willingly allowing ourselves to be a victim is certainly one of the most challenging scenarios we can undergo. But, if we elect to endure such an experience, there’s got to be a purpose behind it. The question here, then, is, “What is it?”

Henri’s circumstances are further complicated by the fact that he doesn’t like being pigeonholed into the role of the victim. He wants to change it, even though he doesn’t appear to know how. It’s a frustrating stalemate, to be sure. So what can he do to get out of it?

For starters, he must look to end the deadlock between these two sets of conditions, drawing the means into his life to make that possible. That calls for breaking the ice that has long been allowed to settle in, which is where Stupid comes in. The canine drastically shakes up life at the Mohen household, and that gets Henri’s foot in the door so he can begin assessing where he is and how he got there. The history behind Henri’s fate is crucial. If he wants to know how to change his life (and the intents that drive it), he must understand how he arrived where he’s at in the first place. That, in turn, means he needs to examine what started this process and set it off on the autopilot it seems to have been on ever since.

Author and family man Henri Mohen (Yvan Attal, right) tries to motivate his weed-smoking, internet-surfing son, Raphaël (Ben Attal, left), to make something of his life in “My Dog Stupid” (“Mon chien Stupide”), now available for first-run online streaming. Photo by David Koskas, courtesy of Distrib Films US.

Conducting such an analysis may not be easy, though. It truly can be a forest-for-the-trees experience. Which is why it’s so important to invoke intents that purposely shake things up, for such changes can expose what we’ve been unable or unwilling to recognize, possibly for a very long time. That’s the process that Stupid helps initiate. It’s one that’s continued by the new developments that occur in Henri’s children’s lives. And it becomes most obvious in the relationship between Henri and Cécile, especially when she begins spending considerable time with one of Gaspard’s professors, Fabrice Mazard (Eric Ruf); what begins as a dialogue between them about the failing student’s grades soon morphs into something more, a change that certainly gets Henri’s attention.

With everyone dropping out of his life, Henri must ask himself what these changes represent. Even though he initially seems to enjoy the liberation that his newfound circumstances have provided, they also raise concerns, prompting him to question how he got to where he now is. While saying more here would reveal too much, suffice it to say that the roots of these conditions extend back far longer than he may have realized – long before he made the decision to adopt a big slobbering dog.

Such introspection provides Henri much-needed perspective, as well as an opportunity to examine and rewrite the script of his existence. It gives him a chance to understand why his wife and family have treated him as they have, both in the past and presently. It helps unleash creativity in his writing that he hasn’t seen in some time, much to the delight of his publisher, Louise Breuvart (Pascale Arbillot). But, most of all, it enables an opportunity to reinvent his life, a goal he’s been chasing unsuccessfully for quite some time.

Bored housewife Cécile Mohen (Charlotte Gainsbourg) loathes the unexpected arrival of Stupid, the big, slobbering dog inexplicably adopted by her husband, in writer-director Yvan Attal’s delightful new French comedy-drama, “My Dog Stupid” (“Mon chien Stupide”), now available for first-run online streaming. Photo by David Koskas, courtesy of Film Distrib US.

Those are significant developments. Some might say that it’s unfortunate it has taken Henri so long to discover the source of his discontent. And, on top of that, he may have some trouble coming to grips with that realization. But, if such revelations make it possible to implement changes that he has long sought to institute, isn’t it worth having to endure some personal growth pains to arrive at that outcome?

This French comedy-drama about the trials and tribulations of a foundering author and family man whose life takes an unexpected and quirky turn with his impulsive adoption of a dim-witted, perpetually randy, ever-slobbering dog serves up far more than what its premise would initially seem to offer. What starts off as a frothy farce gradually turns more introspective, providing characters and viewers much to consider, mixed with a wealth of hearty laughs along the way. With fine performances by writer-director Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, this often-hilarious yet thoughtful tale offers more than just another silly rambunctious dog movie, particularly when it comes to assessing our appreciation of what we have – and what we wish we had – as we enter the second half of our lives, a time to make adjustments while we still have the opportunity to get maximum fulfillment and enjoyment during our remaining years. This supremely delightful release is now available for first-run online streaming.

As many of us find out all too late in life, our time in this reality flies by far more quickly than we often realize, especially once we past the apparent midpoint. In light of that, it only makes sense that we don’t fritter away time and energy in unproductive and unsatisfying pursuits. Squandering our resources on undertakings, individuals and efforts that don’t provide a satisfying return simply isn’t wise. But we’re the only ones who can realistically alter what’s amiss. The sooner we get down to that, the sooner we’ll realize the satisfaction we seek, a process that may find us taking some unusual and unexpected steps – some of which, strangely enough, may come at the end of leash. But what those ventures unleash may genuinely astonish us – especially when life finally throws us some long-sought-after bones.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Making the Most of Life

 

Many of us tend to believe that we have all the time in the world, especially when we’re young. But, as we age and the days grow shorter, we quickly realize otherwise and seek to make the most of what’s left. However, if we’re unable to bring about such results for ourselves, we may not be able to achieve what we set out to do, adding to the frustration we’re already experiencing – unless, of course, we have help that comes to our rescue. Such are the conditions faced by an aging artist in the touching new drama, “The Cuban” (web site, trailer).

At one time, Cuban jazz guitarist Luis Garcia (Louis Gossett Jr.) was one of the greats in his field, performing in nightclubs in Havana and New York with some of the most notable musicians in the business. But now, as he’s about to turn 80, virtually no one remembers him or his work. In fact, he leads a lonely existence in a Canadian nursing home, a dementia patient who spends much of his time staring off into space in a wheelchair, pumped full of antipsychotic drugs to squelch his cantankerous outbursts and keep him docile. But, even though he’s basically being merely warehoused, the staff still makes an obligatory attempt at attending to his basic needs, a generally thankless task assigned by Head Nurse Baker (Lauren Holly) to the newest support staff members. In this case, that’s nursing home aide Mina Ayoub (Ana Golja), a pre-med student who landed the job through her Aunt Bano (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a former physician and head administrator of the facility.

Despite the daunting task of caring for a difficult and often-withdrawn patient, Mina does her level best to find a way to get through to Luis. When Mina learns of his love of Cuban jazz, she sees a window of opportunity, given that she grew up with such music, a favorite of her grandfather with whom she spent much time while growing up in her native Afghanistan. And, even though Mina and her aunt left their homeland behind when they immigrated to Canada, their memories followed them, including Mina’s love of that lively music her grandfather played.

At first, Mina knows little about Luis’s past; she’s just glad to see him start coming out of his withdrawn state when she first hums some of the Cuban melodies and then later plays vinyl editions of them on an old record player. That, along with some clandestinely prepared traditional Cuban food smuggled onto his daily serving trays, works wonders to perk up his spirits and boost his level of physical activity. And, before long, Mina and Luis begin conversing about his past, both personally and professionally, a development that at least momentarily seems to forestall the further onset of his dementia.

Mina is so pleased with these results that the pre-med student begins investigating the impact of music in treating memory loss disorders. She’s encouraged by the findings she uncovers and subsequently steps up her efforts even more by securing a guitar for Luis, courtesy of her boyfriend, Kris (Giacomo Gianniotti). And, together with Kris, her cousin, Zahra (Shiva Negar), and her cousin’s beau, Ethan (Jonathan Keitz), they perform some of Luis’s favorite numbers, dressed in vintage Cuban garb, at the nursing home, a gesture that evokes big beaming smiles across his face. The performance also brings out Mina’s beautiful singing voice, a sign that maybe she’s destined to pursue something other than becoming a doctor, a dream that seems to be more important to her aunt than it is to her.

In taking these steps, however, Mina incurs disapproval from her superiors. Despite the success she’s had in caring for Luis, they believe she’s getting too personally involved. They’re particularly upset when she doesn’t follow the facility’s patient care protocols, most notably her unsanctioned food substitutions, a move that draws the ire of the staff dietician (Jeffrey R. Smith). It doesn’t matter to them that she’s trying to make an old man happy and improve his quality of life; she’s not following the rules.

With her feelings deflated, Mina begins to feel lost. She’s unhappy that she can’t help Luis as she’d like to. What’s more, her relationship with her family and her boyfriend begin to suffer, making matters worse. There must be something she can do, but what? That’s what she must figure out if she hopes to feel personally fulfilled – and to lift the spirits of an ailing old man whose condition may again be worsening, his time potentially running out.

As our days wind down, a question that generally comes to mind is, “How do we want to spend them?” It’s something often asked not only by those whose time is dwindling, but also by those who want the best for them. And, chances are, the answers are unlikely to involve things like endless lab tests, blander than bland food, mind-numbing medications and condescendingly insipid entertainment activities. After a life of fun and frolic, the last thing many of us want is an inane finale that’s about as exciting as a bowl of tepid porridge.

But how do we bring about an ending worth remembering, especially if we’re incapacitated and surrounded by well-meaning caregivers who think they know what’s best for us without realizing the tedium they’re unwittingly inflicting upon us? That’s where we have to draw upon our power to summon the results we want, which includes not only what we’re able to muster for ourselves, but also those whom we draw into our lives to act on our behalf when we can’t.

Consider the case of Luis. He’s obviously upset with the circumstances he’s been saddled with at the nursing home. It’s everything he doesn’t want. No wonder he’s become cantankerous and difficult to deal with. But, given his physical condition, what is he to do? He suffers from various ailments, such as heart trouble. And then there’s his mental state, characterized by a consciousness ravaged by the effects of dementia. He’s not in a position to change conditions on his own, no matter how much he might want to. He needs help, but that’s something he can realize for himself, even if he’s not consciously aware of it, by putting forth intents aimed at manifesting his aims.

Enter Mina. As a comforting, compassionate soul, she sees what Luis wants and needs, and she makes the effort to help. She believes in providing the necessary assistance and works to bring it about, even if it places her job in jeopardy. In turn, she summons forth the aid she needs to fulfill that goal, drawing upon the help of Kris, Zahra and Ethan, as well as one of Luis’s former colleagues, Clarita (Tabby Johnson), and her friends. It’s a beautiful, jointly wrought collaboration that brings joy to someone so craving it, as well as fulfillment to those who help supply it.

That fulfillment achieves several valuable objectives. To begin with, it gives the providers of that satisfaction something about which they can feel genuinely proud. But there’s more to this than just doing good; there’s also the reminder that we must cherish the time we have in this existence, given how quickly it tends to pass us by. Even those of us who are just starting out our lives can benefit from such a tap on the shoulder, to remember to prize each moment, never squandering them or taking them for granted.

Hints of this come up routinely during the film. Such is the case, for example, for Aunt Bano. Despite her training as a physician back in Afghanistan, she’s no longer accredited to practice as such in Canada, which is why she has been relegated to acting as a nursing home administrator. It’s a ruling that has troubled her ever since she arrived in her new homeland, one that’s left her embittered and feeling separated from her calling. However, as Mina reminds her, there’s no reason why she can’t enroll in a scholastic program that will bring her into compliance with Canadian regulations. And, considering her background and comparatively youthful age, she’s talented, experienced and young enough to avail herself of such an opportunity. But only Bano can make the decision to move forward with that plan, one that rests with her beliefs, ambitions and faith in herself. She must ask herself, “Can I indeed do this?” – and then believe whether or not she can.

Mina and Zahra face similar choices, decisions that again rest with their beliefs and intents. As noted earlier, the emergence of Mina’s singing voice certainly raises legitimate questions about her looming medical career. As for Zahra, who dearly loves Ethan, she must stare down the prospect of an arranged marriage set up by her parents (Kane Mahon, Layla Alizada) to a suitor she’s never met. Will the cousins stick to the paths that are expected of them, or will they follow their hearts and tap into the beliefs that they think best for themselves? Again, the sooner they remain true to their authentic selves, the sooner they’ll be able to maximize the fulfillment they seek in the time they have. And to think that all this comes about through the influence of an aging musician who simply wants to enjoy the days that remain.

This bittersweet tale of an aging jazz musician and the young nursing home attendant who seeks to help him revive his memories of his storied past serves up a warm and touching story with great visuals, a saucy soundtrack and an excellent lead performance by Louis Gossett Jr. Although occasionally formulaic and predictable with a few too many story threads, the picture nevertheless entertains while reminding us all of making the most of what time we’ve each got. The film packs a lot into its runtime, but it gives us much to ponder about ourselves. “The Cuban” is available in limited theatrical and drive-in release, as well as for limited online streaming, but this delightfully colorful and pleasant offering is worth the search.

In an age when callousness and self-interest often take precedence over anything else, it’s heartening to see a story that celebrates kindness and selflessness, especially toward someone like Luis, who’s unable to attend to himself as capably as he might like. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have needs, wants and desires that require attention. Which is why the efforts of caring souls like Mina mean so much, not only to those they care for, but also, one hopes, in helping to reshape our reality by enabling those in need to make the most of their lives, no matter how much or how little time they have left. If we were all to adopt outlooks that make such outcomes possible, we might well have a very different world – and a very different quality of life in it. It’s an investment that doesn’t require much from us but pays off far more handsomely than any of us might realize.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.