Farewell to Hollywood

Farewell to Hollywood is a tough film. It’s a difficult film. And not just because it’s an intimate, uncensored portrait of a teenage girl dying from cancer. To call the latest documentary from Henry Corra (The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan) powerful and unflinching only scratches the surface.

We know from the outset that young, aspiring filmmaker Reggie Nicholson isn’t long for this world; the opening scene shows a three people burying Reggie’s ashes at her secret spot on Catalina Island. One of those people, however, is Corra himself, and suddenly we realize he has thrown the “rules” of documentary filmmaking out the window.

Traditionally documentarians keep themselves out of the picture (literally and figuratively), but here we have the director burying his subject’s ashes, moments before discussing how and when to inform her parents that she has died. Let that sink in a moment.

An avid film buff, Reggie remembers the first time she saw The Silence of the Lambs, and she counts Pulp Fiction among her favorites (well-placed clips of those films, along with The Dark Knight and Apocalypse Now abound throughout); she even dressed as Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace for Halloween. Her walls are lined with movie posters, her daily wardrobe includes a Batman cape, and her body is riddled with cancer.

Diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 16, Reggie had already been through chemo and surgery before teaming up with Corra, whom she met at a film festival. She knew she didn’t have long, but she knew the mark she wanted to leave. Corra, too, knew the truth of Reggie’s diagnosis and agreed to tackle her story.

What starts out as a touching portrait of a girl, however, slowly morphs into something much different than I imagine Corra or Reggie had in mind. Reggie’s parents soon tire of Corra’s omnipresence and start to resent him and also Reggie, too, who only wants to spend what time she has left working on her film. In between painful chemo visits and violent nausea, Reggie is filming, and frustration and alienation is building. Halfway through Farewell to Hollywood, Reggie’s parents wildly speculate that she is actually having an affair with Corra– an accusation both Reggie and Corra deny (and that, frankly, never even entered my mind). The damage is done, however, and soon after her 18th birthday, Reggie is kicked out of her own house and moves into a little bungalow Corra gets for her.

I can’t remember a time when a documentary director has so flagrantly inserted him/herself into a film (at one point Corra admits he’s become “attached” to Reggie and is even “mildly obsessed”), and I can easily see how Farewell to Hollywood could rankle people as invasive (at least) or downright exploitative (at worst), but I’ll contend that it actually works. And it helps that I honestly don’t believe that the finished product is at all what Corra (or Reggie) set out to do. But when real life started throwing curve balls, he didn’t have a choice. And the film is actually all the better for it.

There’s a gritty, raw feel to the Farewell to Hollywood that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Reggie’s is a tragic story, to say the least (we watch as she pulls every last hair out of her chemo-ravaged head), but it’s also a triumph of her spirit and her drive and her passion (and her talent, as well, which is displayed toward the end,  in a short film-within-the-film). No one should have to endure what she did, but we’re all better people for watching it unfold. Fortunately Corra was there to document it for us.

4/5 stars