What would you do if you found out you only had a few years left to live? Would you retreat into a shell? Or would you live your remaining life to the fullest? That’s the dilemma faced by Stephen Haywood when he’s diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 29.
So Much So Fast chronicles his life from the early stages of the disease through its devastating impact over the intervening years, documenting his physical deterioration but also mental determination in the face of an almost certain death sentence. It’s a gripping, heartbreaking documentary that reaffirms the precious value of life in the face of adversity while concurrently condemning our profit-driven medical system.
Instead of shutting himself off from society, Stephen resolves to cling to a normal existence, quickly finding a wife and fathering a son while busying himself with two back-to-back home reconstruction projects. His actions might strike some as selfish, as he knows that in all likelihood he will be leaving his wife and young child shortly into their lives together, but when put into the perspective of his tight-knit extended family, it’s clear that he’s acting out of love and not self-serving interests. Stephen maintains a positive attitude throughout his tribulations, making him an extremely likeable subject while also deepening our grief over his impending fate.
The disease wreaks havoc on his family, especially his older brother, Jamie, who attempts to find a cure in time to save Stephen. In spite of his complete lack of any medical background, Jamie’s passion leads him to abandon his own career to establish a small research foundation that gradually grows into a multimillion-dollar organization, the largest ALS research facility in the world. The lab eventually creates a streamlined process to test a variety of potential ALS drugs in mice on a large scale in the hopes of finding a miracle cure before Stephen’s time runs out, completely circumventing the traditional lengthy medical testing model.
As explained in the film, the medical community doesn’t devote much effort to finding an ALS cure because the big pharmaceutical companies don’t see any profit potential due to the small population of victims. Jamie is faced with extremely long odds, but his love for his brother gives him the determination he needs to search for a cure by any means necessary. His personal life begins to suffer as his obsession takes first place above his wife and career, turning him into a tragic figure along with his brother.
The documentary was filmed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, previous Oscar nominees for Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, and they have a strong shot to return next year. Jordan’s own mother was a victim of ALS, giving them added personal interest in capturing the Haywood story. They followed Stephen’s family over the course of nearly five years, capturing Stephen’s horrible deterioration from a fairly active young man to a virtual vegetable wholly reliant on machines to move, breathe, and communicate. The one constant throughout is the deep love he has for his family and vice versa, bridging all physical infirmities to maintain a strong family unit.
Ascher and Jordan wisely keep a clear and solitary focus on the Haywood family, letting the story play out naturally without the use of any archival footage or personal diatribes against the drug companies. This is poignant material that doesn’t need any explanation, presented in such a way that viewers will have no trouble drawing their own conclusions about the drastic shortcomings of our medical system. It’s astounding that they started this film with no clear indication of where or when it would end, and astonishing that the final results are so overwhelmingly powerful.
So Much So Fast is currently screening in limited release around the country. Check the film’s website for locations and DVD release information.
Written by Caballero Oscuro