By: Trevor Chartrand
Defying All Odds is an inspirational documentary that takes a hopeful, optimistic look the possibilities of contemporary medical studies and research. In the climate of the pandemic we’re currently faced with, a positive outlook is a much needed breath of fresh air.
The subject of director Caroleen Moise’s latest documentary effort is Dr. Terry Wahls, an MS survivor who used her own medical knowledge to develop an unconventional treatment plan to preserve her quality of life for as long as possible following her diagnosis. Much to her surprise however, she not only found a way to maintain her lifestyle – she accidentally discovered a controversial ‘miracle treatment’ that helped her recover functionality she thought she had lost forever. Dr. Wahls shares her story in the film and expresses her aspirations to use her discoveries to aid other patients in situations similar to her own. So far, her method has proved successful in treating other ailments in addition to MS.
Structurally, the narrative of the film is presented in a very simple way – both to the advantage and detriment of the documentary. For the entirety of Defying All Odds, Dr. Wahls is brightly lit in front of an all-black background as she narrates the trials and tribulations of living with, and recovering from, MS. The film features cutaways to reenactments as well as animated sequences to help clarify her more scientific discussions. The strength of the film’s simplicity makes the film feel safe, familiar, and easy to understand.
On the other side of the coin, however, the simplicity of the film’s structure also makes for a predictable and, frankly, dull imagining of a truly incredible story. The film features only one interview with only one subject – Dr. Wahls. She speaks clearly, passionately and effectively – but audiences only get to hear one voice for most of the doc’s runtime. We learn about her supportive wife, and her children, but we never get to hear their takes, to understand their perspective throughout the story. There’s some emotion lost in Wahls’ predominately scientific discussion of her illness, her treatment, and her recovery. Towards the end of the film, we briefly hear audio snippets from patients Dr. Wahls has treated – and the variety of voices is a welcome addition that the film could have used a lot more of.
Visually, this one interview in front of a black background keeps the focus on Dr. Wahls– but the film spends a lot of time on this same shot. There’s little-to-no range in the image – on the one hand this is an effective way to keep the focus on her, but it makes for a relatively drab visual experience.
Even during reenactments of events in Dr. Wahls’ life, the performances do feel stilted and staged. It is important of course to have something to cut to but, visually, the film doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. It is also distracting that little effort was made to cast someone who resembles Dr. Wahls for the reenactments, or at least to have the actors made up to look like their real-life counterparts.
Despite these few flaws, the strength of this film is ultimately a powerful story of recovery, and an examination of a truly selfless doctor’s new methods that could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. For her many successes, Dr. Wahls proves herself to be a strong, level-headed survivor and role model for all viewers, a beacon of hope in the face of desperate times.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor