Life According to Sam opens with a 13-year-old boy informing us of the way he views his condition. “I didn’t put myself in front of you to have you feel bad for me.” Sam is one of the few unlucky victims of a rare and fatal disease called progeria, a mysterious illness which causes premature aging. The average age of death for people who have the disease is 13. There’s no cure and no treatment. Rather than making a documentary solely about Sam and his family’s struggle, directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix craft a wholly relatable and empathetic portrait of communal kinship and steadfast action in the hope of finding a cure.
The film opens with Sam in the 8th grade — his physical stature resembling that of a 70 or 80-year-old. The downstream effects of progeria on the genes and organs are significant, causing easy bruising and fracturing of the bones. Sam is quite resilient as he lives his life like any other kid his age. Sympathy is not brought upon Sam by the directors, but only a clear understanding of his potentially life threatening circumstances. He blends in as best as he can while attending concerts and sporting events. His condition is what ultimately defines him, but one that doesn’t hinder him.
In the hands of different filmmakers, perhaps Life According to Sam would not be quite as poignant and informative. It’s easy to picture a perspective steeped in the wrong kind of sappy sentiment and distasteful exploitation, but this documentary adheres to a very optimistic and commonly unseen worldview despite its subject. While Fine and Nix aren’t trying to coax us into tears, the film’s portrait of restless souls battling the disease is one of agreeable grace and palpable emotion.
While Sam very much serves as the foundation of the documentary, Fine and Nix broaden the scope of their film by also focusing on Sam’s parents – Dr.Leslie Gordon and Dr.Scott Berns, a pair of physicians whose lives are dedicated to coming up with a cure for progeria. Leslie’s ongoing research and drug trials are intermixed with Sam’s day-to-day activities, creating a fine balance between naturalistic urgency and a grounded portrait of inspiration.
What resonates most is Fine and Nix’s acute representation of time, procedure and process as Sam and his family try to get the most out of each day. As Leslie and her team’s research continuously gets rejected, the idea of hope is never lost or out of reach. The battle against progeria wages on, and Sam carries with him a spirit of joy and love of life that is often taken for granted by so many. Life According to Sam is far from a watershed documentary, but reverberates in its relentless imminence.