'I Am Paul Walker' is a Somber Observance of a Celebrity-Confined Free Spirit

'I Am Heath Ledger' director Adrian Buitenhuis delivers another emotional documentary about a movie icon who left us too soon.

I Am Paul Walker
Paramount Network

What do you do with your fandom when the object of your obsession suddenly perishes? The loss of life makes an immediate impact on friends and family, and their hurt can only truly be understood within that close-knit group. When someone achieves celebrity, grief becomes confused, and the agony of an unexpected passing is mangled through the machine of pop culture. We all want a piece of that pain, and we take to our social media to exorcize it. Is that tactful? Avoidable?

As someone reared on the output of filmmakers, actors, and other artists, I want and need to express gratitude to the deceased in question. Death can grant us a moment of celebration and connect mourners through a shared outcry of love. Fan art and tributary essays are undeniably cathartic and underscore the effect one person can have on many. Our pain, however, can never match that of the father, the mother, the brother, the daughter, or even the friend.

I Am Paul Walker rides the line between familial sorrow and that complicated ache experienced by consumers. The documentary is a clear commemoration of the titular actor who seemingly jumped out of a magazine to dominate blockbuster culture through the Fast and the Furious franchise. Director Adrian Buitenhuis gathers as many relatives as possible, plops them in front of a camera, and encourages them to eulogize Walker onscreen. The result is intimate and emotional, but never quite reconciles with the audience’s hunger to partake in the process of mourning.

Paul Walker was barely a toddler when his mother put him in front of commercials selling Pampers. By the age of 12 he was guest-starring on numerous television shows including Highway to Heaven, Who’s the Boss?, and Touched by an Angel. The work came naturally to him, and once he was inside the industry, he found it impossible to pull away. A childhood friend said Walker’s biggest problem in life was that acting came too easy for him, and while he may have had notions to pursue marine biology and the chillaxed lifestyle of a surfer, once the money rolled in, he couldn’t stop.

His good looks got him to the auditions, and his charm got him the parts. The small roles started to snowball from Pleasantville to Varsity Blues to She’s All That and The Skulls. On that last film, Rob Cohen found a passionate kid who pined for meatier material, and 2000’s The Fast and the Furious was fashioned around Walker’s piercing letterman personality. From there, the world seemingly belonged to the young actor.

The narrative that I Am Paul Walker forms is that of a talented free spirit who resisted the attention that Hollywood forced upon him. Co-star Tyrese Gibson calls him the “nicest dude on human feet” and happily recalls their 2 Fast 2 Furious nights prowling the streets of Miami for young women. Walker’s younger brother Cody obviously idolizes his celebrity sibling, championing the money Paul scattered where needed throughout the family as well as various charitable nonprofits. The documentary does the due diligence of covering the movies for the fans but continuously reiterates Paul’s desire to escape their pull.

In the background of all these on-set and family stories is Walker’s fractured relationship with Rebecca McBrain and their daughter Meadow. They had the child when he was 25, and from what we can gather from tangential stories, the job kept Walker from providing a healthy support system for the mother and daughter. While it is understandable why Rebecca and Meadow might not want to appear on camera, their absence is greatly felt within the context of the film.

Another noticeable absentee is Fast and Furious star Vin Diesel. Again, it is a partnership explained through others. There’s was a business association according to manager Matt Luber. They were friendly and respected each other, but if you’re looking for brotherly love and joviality, you have to find that warmth with Gibson. The way Luber makes it sound is that when Walker couldn’t shoot the Tokyo Drift climax cameo due to his grandfather’s funeral, Vin swooped into the rescue and took over the franchise from that point going forward. Walker didn’t mind any and just let his go-along-get-along attitude carry him through those last batch of sequels.

Paul Walker was 40 years old when he died in a fiery car crash in Santa Clarita, California. The actor never got free from the profession that came so easily to him, but he cultivated a passionate fan base and a loving family that eagerly needed to express their grief to a documentary crew. I Am Paul Walker feels like therapy for some and an apology for others.

For the most part, Buitenhuis only touches on the sunny side of Walker. We see brief shadows and we’re left to discern the strains a life in front of the camera might cause. The film strives not to be a somber observance but cannot shake the tragedy of severed relationships and is unable to provide the whole story of a life lived exuberantly. Here is a shoulder to cry on, and for the fan that might be enough.