Reeve's docu-drama of a quadriplegic

The late actor's experience informs the way he tells Ellison's story


October 25, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There comes a crucial point in The Brooke Ellison Story, an A&E cable movie directed by Christopher Reeve shortly before he died earlier this month, in which the mother of a young woman in a wheelchair speaks to her daughter about never giving up.

"You're an adult now," the mother says through tears, "and there is a place for you in this world. But you have to decide if you are going to contribute to it, or be paralyzed."

Reeve, of course, was paralyzed as the result of a riding accident in 1995, but he spent much of the rest of his life contributing to the world. The Brooke Ellison Story is part of that legacy, a sensitive and stirring film about courage, determination, the invincibility of the human spirit and the power of a family's love to lift one of its fallen members.

There is a real Brooke Ellison, who as a high-spirited 11-year-old was left paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on her own after being hit by a car one day on the way home from school. This A&E docu-drama tells her story from the day she became a quadriplegic, through intensive care and rehabilitation, to graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1990. Ellison is now studying for a doctorate degree at Stony Brook University, near her family's home in New York.

That narrative is a medical version of the hero quest, a moving saga of the battles Ellison fought to overcome her injuries as she moved through adolescence and into adulthood. But, as Reeve and screenwriter Camille Thomasson tell that story, cataloging the seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed in Ellison's way by insensitive health care and educational systems, they also celebrate the rich inner life of intellect and imagination that propels her forward. The energy of the film comes from the filmmakers never letting us lose sight of what's happening inside Ellison's mind.

One technique used with great directorial sophistication by Reeve involves a recurring dream Ellison has of a young ballet dancer all in white moving flawlessly to a rhythm that seems to come from within. While that image is not original, Reeve takes it from the very first sequence of the film and works with it through several key moments until he offers his reworked version of it in an emotional knockout of a final scene - Ellison in her wheelchair imitating the movement she feels in her dream.

Lacey Chabert's understated and inner-directed depiction of Ellison makes that moment all the more compelling in that Ellison seems to be "dancing" for herself and not asking viewers to feel one bit of sympathy or pity for her. Through the use of a long-shot, Reeve reinforces that perception - letting Ellison have the moment mostly to herself, with viewers allowed to look on only from a distance. I wonder if a director who did not have Reeve's personal history of paralysis would have played it that way.

In addition to the hero quest, this is also a love story. Ellison's mother, Jean (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), dedicated herself to seeing that her daughter had every opportunity to achieve her full potential. For the mother, that meant quitting her career as a high school teacher, learning enough nursing to be her daughter's full-time caregiver, and then moving to Harvard with her, attending every class and sharing the same room, because her daughter needed that kind of around-the-clock care.

In one touching montage of Ellison's daily life at Harvard, we see mother and daughter listening to an English professor reading the line, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds." Each is lost in her own thoughts. The triumph of Mastrantonio's performance is that in watching her, one absolutely believes that Brooke Ellison was loved not one whit less by her family after the accident.

To those who have not suffered great loss or disability in their lives, The Brooke Ellison Story might not seem like such a great film. But for those who have, it will feel like a final blessing from Reeve - one last inspirational exhortation to never stop listening to the inner voices that promise a brighter tomorrow to those willing to continue the fight.

TV tonight

What: The Brooke Ellison Story

Where: A&E

When: 8 tonight; repeated at 10

In brief: The last movie directed by Christopher Reeve is a winning tale about great achievement in the face of adversity.

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