Filmmaker Jason DaSilva was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006. A few months later, he was playing with family members on the beach when he fell and couldn’t stand again. This moment was captured on film, and it opens When I Walk. From there, DaSilva chronicles the progression of his illness, and his life around it, over the course of six years. The documentary is a journal of both his pains and his joys.
Something the film illustrates vividly is how throughly a degenerative disease can take over someone’s life. Jason, once a spontaneous partier, has to plan out every step of his day. He needs to check every potential destination to make sure that it’s handicapped accessible. The more the MS progresses, the less he can do for himself, including getting dressed or going to the bathroom. The audience feels DaSilva’s decline, incremental but inexorable. It’s slightly terrifying to watch.
But the movie aims to keep an upbeat tone, and to do so in an emotionally honest way. As DaSilva’s mother sternly reminds him, there are multitudes in the world who are worse off than he is, MS or no MS. He may no longer be able to run or play sports, but he can still make movies. His body may be falling apart, but his mind is still sharp. Subtly, the movie reminds the viewer to keep their own life in perspective. “Someone else has it worse, and they’re getting by,” may be a crude motivator, but it’s effective.
The movie doesn’t really hit a narrative stride until DaSilva meets a woman at a support group for people with MS and their families. That woman, Alice, eventually becomes his wife, and his struggle become a shared one. Seeing the two of them interact is much more engaging than it is to watch Jason in constant confession cam mode. Their relationship, sweet and steadfast, presses the main point of the movie — that we overcome our burdens in life with the help of those we love.
When I Walk is good enough that I wished it was better. I feel that it might have been better off as a short piece. Too often, story beats will repeat themselves. At first, it’s effective to listen to DaSilva muse on how short life is, but hearing that same sentiment five more times makes it tiresome. The first act is generally aimless and uninvolving. The doc simply doesn’t justify its existence in its final form. This is a danger with any autobiographical project, to mistake introspection before a camera as something that automatically renders the public display of the self as meaningful. When I Walk could have said everything it already does, with just as much punch, in half its running time.
There are no great or big moments to point at in this film, but there are many little observations that, added up to a whole, have resonance. These moments concern how life with MS is different from a normal life in the most heartbreaking ways, and how it’s the same as a normal life in the most uplifting ways. They’re enough to make When I Walk worthwhile, even if they’re spread thin in their narrative.
When I Walk opens Friday at the IFC Center in New York City and next Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. For details and more info on other screenings happening this week and in the future, check the film’s website.