Kurt Kuenne’s best-known film is Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, which is famous for being possibly the most gut-wrenching documentary of all time. He made a lot of people weep with devastation with that one, and now he’s got a new doc that will have you crying happy tears instead. Kuenne is not the director of Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World — that would be Dana Nachman — but his hand in its making, as co-writer and editor, is definitely significant. And that’s good for him, as it kind of balances out his earlier film’s heartbreaking story with one that’s extremely heartwarming.
In case you were living under a rock back in November 2013, “Batkid” was a five-year-old boy who became a worldwide phenomenon when the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted his desire to be the Caped Crusader, and more than 10,000 people helped to turn San Francisco into “Gotham City by the Bay” for a staged crime-fighting event. Not only were streets shut down so that the little leukemia survivor could pretend to accompany the “real” Batman and help to thwart the Penguin and the Riddler and save a damsel in distress, but the costumed kid, whose real name is Miles Scott, also received the key to the city from Mayor Ed Lee and a personal message from President Obama.
Nachman and Kuenne lay out a straight chronicle of the story of Batkid, beginning with Scott’s medical situation and application to the charitable organization, detailing the planning and build-up to the day, including the shocking increase in attention and support from around the globe, and fully following the main event itself, the last part aided by footage that had been shot throughout the proceedings by a 12-man crew that regularly partners with Make-A-Wish for promotional videos (see their actual promo video for the Batkid event here). Batkid Begins at times feels like an extended commercial for the organization, and that crew’s leader, John Crane, is an executive producer.
So, while it’s obviously favorable to them and also uplifting, adorable and heartwarming from start to finish (I have to admit I got choked up with happiness for the boy and his family), there’s not much depth to the documentary (which is now set for a dramatic remake produced by and starring Julia Roberts). There are plenty of interviews with people involved, from Scott’s parents to the responsible leaders at the Bay Area branch of Make-A-Wish to the Mayor and police chief to the players performing as Batman and his villains to Dark Knight trilogy composer Hans Zimmer, who donated an exclusive bit of music for Batkid Day, and they mainly provide running commentary and context for what we’re watching. There’s a lot of mention of how the event grew tremendously through social media channels and even features involved parties from Twitter and Apple and elsewhere, but there’s never a discussion of why or what it means that so many people took part and/or showed up.
The cynic in me can’t watch something like Batkid Begins and not wonder more about the cause and nature of the phenomenon. How many among the thousands in the crowd were there to be part of a virally mediated event rather than because a single little boy had cancer. It’s okay if some were, and that’s an interesting angle to this story, which unfortunately isn’t explored enough. I’m also curious about some of the critics of the whole event, such as San Francisco city supervisor Eric Mar, who put things into the perspective that there are lots of other kids in need and whose controversial comments are not acknowledged in the film. There is mention of general complaints about taxpayer money going into the event, but only before showing that a generous couple wrote San Francisco a check for the entire sum.
That’s not the kind of doc they wanted or made here, and that’s fine. If you’re looking for one of the most feel-good documentaries of all time, though, this is probably among them. Batkid/Scott is a lovable little hero and subject, as are some of the others who gave him the experience of a lifetime, especially Make-A-Wish’s Bay Area executive director Patricia Wilson and Batman player EJ Johnston, a former LucasArts video game developer. Almost all the talking heads are excited and proud, filling the film with a positive electricity. It’s a power that most docs of such simplicity just don’t have.
This review was originally published during the Slamdance Film Festival on January 25, 2015.