Throughout the 31st Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at The Lens will be spotlighting some of their favorite feature films on this year’s festival slate. Our critics have picked can’t-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to claim your tickets.
Dr. Carl June never thought he’d see patients. As a matter of fact, he never thought he’d be a medical professional at all. However, when he was drafted during the Vietnam War and then recruited to attend medical school, there was little choice in the matter. This was only the beginning of an increasingly unbelievable — but 100 percent true — life trajectory for June. Parents Tom and Kari Whitehead can similarly attest to the profound unpredictability of existence. When their 5-year-old daughter, Emily, begins showing symptoms of leukemia, they are utterly stupefied by life’s tendency to defy the plans one has so carefully laid. As it turns out, the Whiteheads haven’t even begun to grasp what the future holds for them. They wouldn’t believe it, either. Not yet.
After the war, Dr. Carl June’s career shifts focus to a new battle: curing HIV. After testing, Emily’s childhood is defined by a different (but equally daunting) acronym: ALL, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Before showing what the first of these two narratives has to do with the other, Ross Kauffman’s latest documentary, Of Medicine and Miracles, first follows its subjects to hell and back and then to hell again, over and over, until they can navigate the route with their eyes closed. Crushing doesn’t even begin to describe what Dr. June and the Whiteheads experience in their own lives, much less what happens when the four of them inevitably — fatefully, divinely — unite in the spring of 2012. This is more than five years since Emily’s fight against ALL began and more than 20 since the start of Dr. June’s efforts against HIV.
What do HIV and leukemia have to do with one another? And how do decades of research into one deadly immune-system threat lead to a breakthrough in the ongoing mission to stop another? For those who might recognize the names June and Whitehead from headlines a decade ago, the answer may already be known. For the rest of the audience going in blind — as with Three Identical Strangers (2018), Grizzly Man (2005), or any other doc that covers a highly publicized but somewhat forgotten human-interest story — Of Medicine and Miracles proves to be astonishing beyond belief.
With a story as powerful as this, Kauffman can be forgiven for employing some of the safest and most commonplace documentary-filmmaking techniques. Talking-head interviews, archival home-video footage, plenty of narrative montage: It’s textbook stuff, but it’s all used exactly how it’s supposed to be. At its heart, this is a story that needs to be told, and Kauffman relies on these easily digestible methods because they allow the story to be conveyed in the most accessible way possible. In this way, Of Medicine and Miracles leans more toward journalism than arthouse. It’s no matter, though: The basic coverage utilized here is the ideal delivery method for Dr. June and the Whitehead family’s life-changing accomplishments.
Besides, Kauffman isn’t trying to change the way audiences look at documentary filmmaking. Rather, he’s trying to change the way they view America’s broken healthcare system and the hope that lies in one of the most promising experimental cancer treatments in modern medicine. Tom and Kari Whitehead’s candidness surrounding their daughter’s diagnosis and years-long struggle to beat a vicious disease, paired with the compassion and benevolence of Dr. Carl June’s massive scientific undertaking to do the same, create something truly special: a bracing, brutal, affecting tale about an awe-inspiring feat of science. It sounds inconceivable, but it’s hardly hyperbolic. Ross Kauffman’s Of Medicine and Miracles upholds the importance of faith in the incontrovertible power of science, even when it can sometimes feel blind.
Of Medicine and Miracles screens at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema at 12:05 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10.