Fowl Out

Washington City Paper | January 13, 2006
Writer-director Dani Menkin’s 39 Pounds of Love also seeks to prove how normal its subject is—only in an exceptional, life-affirming way. Ami Ankilewitz, an Israeli citizen who was born in Texas, was diagnosed as a toddler with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. His doctor told Ankilewitz’s mother that the boy wouldn’t live past the age of 6.

After filling in this bit of background, the doc then shows us Ankilewitz’s 34th-birthday party, just as the guest of honor, stick-figured and sitting in his wheelchair, prepares to make an announcement to his gathered family and friends. “I’m pregnant,” Ankilewitz says.

Har, har. But seriously, folks, Ankilewitz continues, he’s planning on taking a trip to the United States to travel from coast to coast, which has been his lifelong dream. Ankilewitz’s parents immediately forbid him, but he says he doesn’t care: He has to confront the doctor who diagnosed him and show the old man how wrong he was.

After just a few minutes, Menkin and co-writer Ilan Heitner have already sent most of their movie’s messages: Ami has friends! Ami has a sense of humor! Wheelchair or not, Ami doesn’t let anyone push him around! 39 Pounds—Ankilewitz’s adult weight—then jumps back a year to give a couple more tidbits about this medical miracle’s everyday life. Though his movement is limited to a single finger, Ankilewitz works as an animator in Israel. His handiwork is woven throughout the 70-minute film, decorating his travels in the form of a little bird that Ankilewitz uses to represent himself—and which we see flying just outside his plane as he makes his way to America. But there’s an even more heart-tugging part of Ankilewitz’s story that his drawings illustrate: His all-consuming love for his bubbly former caretaker, Christina.

It’s unlikely that many of 39 Pounds’ viewers will have been exposed to anyone quite in Ankilewitz’s condition, even onscreen. Murderball’s subjects weren’t nearly as physically feeble, and though last year’s Rory O’Shea Was Here illustrated the lives of the severely disabled, its main actors were able-bodied. It also seems unlikely, however, that many viewers have seen a real life quite so cinematic. The road scenes are predominantly buoyant as the caravan travels from California to Florida, but then come the dramatics, including an emergency brought on by the rarefied air at the Grand Canyon and a family reunion so scripted and sentimental that you expect Amy Grant to pop out of the manicured bushes.

The worst, however, is the focus on Ankilewitz’s crush on Christina. Ankilewitz provides obsessive narration about how wonderful she is, and clips show her bathing him and making him laugh. But then Menkin zooms in for the kill: Christina is asked whether Ankilewitz’s feelings are requited. The answer is no. And, horrifically enough, Ankilewitz is right there for his reaction to be immortalized. That’s not the end, though—Ankilewitz still swoons for Christina, so prepare for repeated slow-motion footage of her beaming and bouncing around, lest we forget her saintly loveliness, the heartless bitch.

Of course, there are genuinely touching—and genuinely genuine—moments here, too. Ankilewitz and his gang like to drink and goof around, for example, but neither really makes him forget the precariousness of his life. “I live with death by my side,” he says. “We’re old friends.” But such scenes apparently aren’t enough for Menkin, who closes with an incredibly awkward encounter between Ankilewitz and the baffled man who might or might not have been his childhood doctor—and then a sequence that shows Ankilewitz riding in the sidecar of a Harley. The inspirational music swells as the animated Ankilewitz returns, and this time, the bird is climbing a mountain and then flying off to the moon. Whether Ankilewitz safely makes it home or what’s become of him since are questions not answered in 39 Pounds, presumably because such matters were too dull for the camera.

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