Oscar-nominated documentary shorts: a close shave in Mondays at Racine

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All this month we'll be reviewing the Oscar nominees for the best animated, live-action, and documentary short films, alternating daily between categories. Check back tomorrow for the next installment.

This year's nominees for best short documentary are no bowl of cherries: Redemption deals with people who collect recyclable cans and bottles to survive, King's Point looks at all the lonely people at a seniors-only condominium in Florida, and Open Heart is about Rwandan children undergoing cardiac surgery. Of the ones I've seen, however, the most painful by far is Cynthia Wade's Mondays at Racine. Once a month the Racine Salon de Beaute & Spa opens its doors to women being treated for cancer, most of whom are losing their hair from chemo or radiation treatment and have decided to bite the bullet and get their heads shaved. The two owners lost their mother to breast cancer in 1984 and, remembering how traumatized she was by her deteriorating appearance, decided to offer free beauty treatments to other women in her predicament.

To say the movie is filled with tears and hugs makes it sound sappy, but they're the only human response to what's going on here; Wade's close-ups of women getting their heads shorn for the first time are excruciating. But the beauty salon is really just a device for Wade to interview some of the patrons as they—and their men—make the adjustment to living with cancer. The two women she chooses to profile at length are Cambria, a 36-year-old woman diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, and Linda, a 58-year-old woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer 17 years ago and told she had only five years to live. The definition of a survivor, she offers the other women the sage advice her own daughter gave her: "Keep it moving, mommy."

That advice turns out to be harder to follow than it sounds. As Linda explains, her husband, Warren, has been living with this situation for 17 years too. "It's almost as if he's holding his breath," she observes. "He's been holding his breath for a long time." By the end of the movie, their marriage has fallen apart and Linda has asked him to move out; one marvels at the courage required to decide you're going to die alone, but of course we all die alone, and in a way her resolve to end a marriage that's not working is the ultimate evidence that mommy intends to keep it moving no matter what. In the last scene she's still alive and kicking, despite the fact that the cancer has metastasized to one of her lungs and she's chosen to forgo any additional chemo.

For Cambria there's a similar tension between her illness and her need to live, specifically her and her husband's desire to adopt the little boy who's been their foster child for some time. Because her life expectancy is in question, though, they're not sure a judge will approve the adoption. At the same time, she faces a mastectomy and can't decide whether to remove the other breast as well, to circumvent the spread of the disease; ultimately she decides on a double mastectomy. I could have done without the video-cam shot of her bare, scarred chest—which makes me part of the problem, I suppose—but that's the sort of movie this is, unflinching in its honesty and genuine in its sense of hope.


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