There are moments of Thank You for Playing that are so painful because the documentary feels so personal. It’s about Joel Green, a boy with terminal brain cancer, and how his parents try to cherish the little joys in life while coming to terms with the grief they’ll face. Just writing that sentence and thinking about a few moments in the film is making me cry.
One of the most important functions of art is giving our emotions a field on which to play. In creating this space, we can make sense of what we’ve gone through or are still going through. For Joel’s parents, Ryan and Amy, they’re creating an indie game called That Dragon, Cancer, which serves as a memorial and love letter to their son, and also a way for others to experience the pain and fear of loss.
[This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Thank You for Playing
Directors: David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Release Date: March 18, 2016 (limited); March 29, 2016 (VOD)
Just seeing Joel on screen is heartbreaking. It’s the way his eyes cross, which seems troubling, not a routine case of strabismus that lots of kids have. A whole flood of emotions winds up in the content of That Dragon, Cancer. The first-person experiential game allows players to push Joel on a swing, to feed ducks with Joel at sunset, to catch Joel coming down a slide as he giggles--it’s his real laugh. There are also visits to the clinic, mournful walks through dark rooms of the house, and even a metaphorical flourish of indoor rain, like something out of a Tarkovsky movie magnified to Biblical proportions.
While That Dragon, Cancer offers a space to participate in the life of the Green family, it also conveys a sense of helplessness. There’s only one outcome to all of this. Ryan and Amy are people of faith, and it seemed that an underlying pain of their situation is how God could let this happen. I never sensed that their faith was in question--it’s something stable--and the game and the documentary convey the frustration of trying to find hope when none seems possible.
For instance, in the design of the game, Joel’s face lacks features. By not particularizing Joel’s face, it opens up the possibility for a more universal experience of the loss. Yet there’s also the facelessness of the real Joel. He should be verbal at his age and have more of a personality, but his development has been stunted. Ryan says that he loves his son, but he doesn’t really know him and he’ll never get to really know him.
Directors David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall play a difficult balancing act since their film is both a making-of documentary about That Dragon, Cancer as well as a chronicle of a family’s sadness along the lines of Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary. There are times when the making-of aspects of the film feel at odds with the heartache in the Green family, but they’re generally all of a piece. Art gets made to address an experience, so the creative process of making That Dragon, Cancer is an essential interpretive component to the movie. There’s little division between lived life and creative life.
There’s a scene in which Ryan records some dialogue for the game. His lines seem like private poetry if you just read them as words on a screen: “Fear is cancer’s preservative; cancer’s embalming oil. And you, oh Accuser, are Fear’s oil salesmen.”
He reads his lines again, this time with something to wrap his hands around, like he’s choking the Devil, or cancer, or his anxieties, or death itself. He reads with so much conviction, and he brings to life all of the ineffable emotional stuff that his words alone can’t convey.
There’s another important function to art that comes across in both That Dragon, Cancer as well as Thank You for Playing: it’s to remind others that no matter what, whether in joy or in grief, we are not alone.