In 2011, Boston filmmaker Will Lautzenheiser was preparing to teach his first film class when a regular visit to his doctor changed his life forever. Lautzenheiser had an irritating leg pain that turned out to be a life-threatening infection. Within days, all of his limbs were amputated. Admittedly this does not sound like a basis for a feel good film, so let me tell you that director Robin Berghaus’s documentary is filled with surprises. It is a captivating look at patience, perseverance, and perspective as it explores the physical and emotional challenges that come with a sudden, life-changing event. The fact that Will is a distinctive personality whose first order of business after leaving the hospital is to perform stand-up comedy has a great deal to do with the success of this film.
The film uses an honest, all-access approach so that viewers can experience one man’s struggle to regain independence. We watch as Will’s partner, Angel, adjusts to his new role as a caretaker. The dynamics of the two men’s relationship is sweet, difficult, and complicated relationship but also illuminating and thought provoking. Berghaus expertly balances multiple levels of human drama with fascinating details about the science and medicine behind transplant surgery. This is an unexpected survival story that addresses issues of identity, diversity, and the strength of the human spirit.
“Stumped” is a small movie that does not go much beyond Will and is therefore focused and informative. Here is a young filmmaker who needed all four extremities amputated after a horrifying infection. He was able to have a dual arm transplant during filming. adds new, intriguing material.
It all begins when Will feels a pain two days into his job teaching film at Montana State University and, by the time he gets to the emergency room, staph infection has snowballed into toxic shock, necessitating the amputation. Will commits to full-time rehab, learns to accomplish what he can with limited capacity and prosthetic limbs, and eventually takes to the stage at a Boston improv club with jokes nobody else could get away with making. That positive attitude is part of the reason that the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital find him to be an excellent candidate for a transplant since the rehab for that is tremendously intense.
Robin Berghaus uses Will’s entertainingly self-deprecating humor without being disrespectful of the greater community dealing with that sort of disability. Will and the film get real laughs rather than ones given jut because of his awful situation. There are scenes of unease including photos of how quickly and thoroughly the infection destroyed healthy tissue to the understandable discomfort that co-exists with. We see Will’s his twin brother’s support and how he managed both simple and complex things. We see demonstrations of what his rehab and day-to-day life is like and other personal information and a lot of facts and medical discussions that might fascinate some. By and large, this is about Will overcoming challenges in large part due to his good attitude and excellent support system.
Will frequently speaks about wanting a lot more control than he now has and we see this as gross-out jokes and when he speaks to Angel, his boyfriend who shows his g visible frustration, especially after Will has tried to lead him through something relatively complicated like cooking. This is a film about a man who wants to be very independent while having to accept that he will need to rely on others’ help for a great many things. We would think that receiving the transplant would change that but the opposite happens, as Will realizes that everything he does in the future will be done with the help of his anonymous donor. I was totally fascinated by the film and I think that most who see it will feel the same.