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DOCAVIV 2019

Review: Once Upon a Boy

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- Uri Levi's first feature-length documentary as a director is a gentle story about a family struggling with their son's cerebral palsy

Review: Once Upon a Boy

Israeli cinematographer Uri Levi, best known for last year's documentary hit Family in Transition, has debuted as a director with Once Upon a Boy [+see also:
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. The film world-premiered in the Israeli Competition of Docaviv last week and won the Special Jury Prize to boot. 

Ron is a ten-year-old boy suffering from cerebral palsy. His upper-middle-class parents, Eran and Hili, have two more sons: Ron's healthy twin Yanai and the younger Lior. At the beginning of the film, we see them all sitting down for dinner, and as they talk about how Ron is not able to play all the games his brothers are playing, Yanai starts crying, sad about not having been helping Ron enough, and this brings tears to Eran's eyes as well. 

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Many of the scenes in the movie feature tearful eyes, but the cause is never desperation. This is a sensitive family in a difficult position, and we learn about each of the members and their mutual relations through interviews, but even more so through intimate observational passages.

Out of the two parents, who are in their thirties, Eran seems to be the more positive-thinking one, always proclaiming how happy and lucky he is. “I know many families with disabled children, and our story is by far the best,” he says. Hili, on the other hand, is more anxious and definitely seems more stressed, but is also more active in terms of finding ways to alleviate Ron's condition. She is the one who fights to get their disabled son into the “normal” school that the other two siblings are attending. And she is the one on whose initiative the family travels to St Louis for Ron to have an operation that should assuage his problems with his legs and spine.

The second half of the film is fully dedicated to this crucial part of their lives. It is never easy living with a disability in the family, and Eran and Hili's already strained relationship gets tested even further when Ron is in serious pain after the surgery.

But despite the inevitable arguments that come up between the couple, their faith, dedication, and love for each other and their boys always prevail. There is also a grandma, Eran's mother, who tells Ron stories about an imaginary boy, Uri, a kind of a healthy stand-in for him, and this is where the film's title comes from. 

The overriding mood of the film is gentle, crucially supported by Sheila Ferber's light and optimistic acoustic and electric guitar score. Visually, here the method of filming and the storytelling dictate the framing, meaning that the camera is predominantly hand-held, and while it lacks elegance (as it sometimes drops certain figures from the screen or accidentally gets too close to the protagonists), it possesses an intimacy that reflects the family relations. Eran and Hili have allowed Levi into their lives to such an extent that he has been able to catch – and includes in the film – segments that range from real, almost palpable closeness to verbal fights that reveal their darker sides. So despite the tears, this film is as unsentimental as it can get with this particular topic.

Once Upon a Boy is a production by Israel's Oyo Films, which also has the international rights.

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