Not Just Another Depressing Alzheimer's Movie

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Why you should care

“The Genuis of Marian” gives home movies a whole new meaning. 

Before Pam Steele White was a mother, she was a model and an actress. Not necessarily one you’ve ever heard of — it was her mother, artist Marian Steele, who was famous — but the kind who did commercials back in the day for Arrid Extra Dry and grew up in a hotel and graced the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard in her bikini. Her laughter, smiles, kindness and commitment to her social work career garnered the adoration of all: her friends, loyal husband and, later, her three children.

One of the kids, Banker White, admires his mother so much that he has made a documentary about her — and her desire to write a book about her mom, who died of Alzheimer’s — while also succumbing to the disease herself, at age 61. The film is as beautiful as Pam. Even with her wrinkles and bouts of stubbornness and blank, empty stares.

Carrying a camera over the course of three years, barely intruding on his family’s daily care of their mother, Banker documents quiet moments and asks only simple questions and, in the film, juxtaposes the difficult present with happy clips from the past. The pretty young girl playing tennis is the same woman of privilege now struggling to put on her winter coat. We watch her sob in the middle of the ocean. And sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with her adult son. And smile at her husband every morning. “How’s your memory?” her doctor asks. “Perfect,” Pam jokes, revealing her persistent sense of humor, before stumbling over illustrations of a comb and a bench, unable to figure out what year it is.

There are plenty of heart-wrenchingly sad movies about aging out there (2012 Oscar nominee Amour is arguably the saddest). But The Genius of Marian is something different: It is a meditation on family, on the continuity across generations, on marriage, on motherhood.

Marian

Vintage photo of mother and daughter

Banker White manages to capture what it’s all about in one hour-and-a-half-long, Kickstarter- and foundation-funded film. It has been screened at festivals including Tribeca and Moscow International — with dozens more upcoming, including a nationwide broadcast on PBS in September.

The Genius of Marian isn’t just another depressing Alzheimer’s movie — it’s a moving, gentle, ultimately uplifting reminder to live, like Pam, with no regrets.

And to show your mom you love her.

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