‘Films About Doctors, Nurses and Hospitals’. That’s the theme of this month’s Genre Grandeur. There were several titles I could have selected to write about. But after re-reading my list of the top ten films I’d love to review, I decided to take a different approach for November’s event. When I published the aforementioned list in June, I talked about the 1986 made-for-TV movie, Alex: The Life of a Child. The film is based on Frank Deford’s book of the same name, which recounts the life of his daughter, Alex. Because of her Cystic Fibrosis diagnosis, Alex spent a significant amount of time interacting with doctors and nurses, as well as spending time in the hospital. Therefore, I thought Alex: The Life of a Child was an appropriate title to review for November’s Genre Grandeur!
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: When you have a story that primarily focuses on a younger character/person, you need to recruit a younger actor or actress who has the talent to carry that film on their shoulders. In the case of Gennie James’ portrayal of Alex Deford, her performance highlights the idea of children being smarter than they sometimes receive credit for. Toward the end of the film, Alex asks her doctor whether she’s going to die. Her tone of voice is matter-of-fact, containing a sense of understanding for what’s going on. Alex’s doctor, Dr. Tom Dolan, tries his best to be as honest as possible, while also sugar-coating the news just enough to keep it bearable. Alex then tells Tom, “Ok, I think you better go now”, empathy felt in her voice. However, this empathy was for Tom, as Alex knew how difficult her passing would be for him.
Danny Corkill portrays Alex’s brother, Christian Deford. Even though he appeared in only a handful of scenes, Danny’s performance was a strong one! After receiving the news his family will be adopting a child, Christian goes to his room. In there, he listens to a series of recordings Frank created while Alex was still alive. Throughout this scene, Danny consistently carries a long look on his face. His eyes stare off into the distance, searching for the one person who won’t come back home. Those eyes are paired with a frown and a sad tone in his voice. This scene alone showcases how difficult a family member’s passing can be on a child, especially if that family member is their younger sibling.
Alex and Christian’s mother is portrayed by Bonnie Bedelia. What I liked about her performance was how expressive it was. Shortly after receiving the news about Alex’s diagnosis, Frank and Carole are worried about their daughter’s outcome. During her conversation with Frank, Carole’s eyes are filled with sadness and fear. A deep sense of concern is in Carole’s voice, as she and Frank wonder how much longer Alex will live. That scene displays a portrayal that feels believable, thanks in part to Bonnie’s strong acting abilities!
Respect toward the source material: As I mentioned in the introduction, Alex: The Life of a Child is based on a book written by Alex’s father, Frank. In my list of the top ten movies I’d love to review, I said I had read this book. Even though it’s been years since I read Frank’s novel, there were parts of the story I recognized from the text. One of them was the Deford family’s recording for their answering machine. In both the book and movie, the Deford family creates a funny recording for their answering machine, where they pretend to be in the shower while the phone is ringing. They record the message in the bathroom, leaving the faucet running and singing songs. This moment served as a hilarious moment in Alex’s life, stressing how Alex attempted to seek out the bright spots in her world, despite the severity of her illness.
Addressing the subject of patient advocacy: During one of her hospital stays, Alex’s lung collapses. She not only is in pain, she recognizes where the pain is coming from. When she tells a doctor what is happening, the doctor doesn’t believe her. But when Alex told a nurse she couldn’t breathe, Alex’s concerns were addressed. The subject of patient advocacy, especially for younger patients, is one that has received more acknowledgment in recent years. Alex’s story took place in the 1970s, with the film released in 1986. Therefore, this scene’s inclusion feels ahead of its time. It can also show viewers, including younger viewers, that you should stand up for yourself, even in a medical setting.
What I didn’t like about the film:
The adoption subplot: Throughout the film, Frank and Carole Deford plan on adopting a child. This decision comes after the death of their daughter, Alex. In real life, the Deford family did adopt their youngest daughter, Scarlet. But this information was not included in the film’s source material, which was published in 1983. Scarlet’s adoption was addressed when Frank’s book was re-released in 1997, a decade after the film premiered. Because a good amount of the movie focused on this subplot, it took away focus from Alex’s part of the story, even though the film is titled Alex: The Life of a Child.
No acknowledgment for the Deford family’s involvement with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: According to Frank Deford’s bio on Goodreads, “he became involved in cystic fibrosis education and advocacy after his daughter, Alexandra (“Alex”) was diagnosed with the illness in the early 1970s”. Frank even became a chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Unfortunately, none of this information is included in the film. In fact, the aforementioned foundation is never brought up. I know there’s only so much story you can tell in an hour and thirty-three minutes. However, I wish this part of the story was included in a subplot instead of the adoption subplot.
Unclear time period: Similar to the book, the movie is told from Frank’s perspective, as he recalls Alex’s short life. Because of the visual nature of film, the audience witnesses some of these moments brought to life. But since the presentation of the “past” scenes doesn’t look much different from the “present” scenes, it was sometimes difficult to determine what part of the story was being told. For the sake of the film, I think the story should have been told in chronological order.
My overall impression:
Back in April, I reviewed Brian’s Song. In that review, I said I wasn’t as emotionally affected by the movie as I thought I would be. This is because I was familiar with Brian and Gale’s story before watching the film, which prevented me from becoming caught off-guard by the emotional, sadder moments in the story. I ended up having a similar experience while watching Alex: The Life of a Child. As I mentioned in this review, I have read the source material prior to seeing its adaptation. Therefore, I already knew how Alex’s story would play out. From what I remember of the book, I do feel the film was respectful to Frank’s text. I also think the strong acting performances worked in the movie’s favor. Alex: The Life of a Child is a fine, competently made television film. But if you’ve read the book, you’ve already seen the movie.
Overall score: 7.1-7.2 out of 10
Have you seen or read Alex: The Life of a Child? Is there a “based on a true story” movie you’re a fan of? Let me know in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!