Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Film Review: Thank You for Playing

by Betsy Trapasso

“I am scared that I will forget Joel. I don’t want to forget him.” These words spoken by Ryan Green about Joel, his terminally ill five-year-old son, resonated strongly with me, while watching the documentary Thank You For Playing. How many times have we heard words similar to these from family members of hospice and palliative care patients? How many times have we held their hands and looked into their eyes and assured them that loved ones can never be forgotten?

In Thank You For Playing, co-directors Malika Zouhali-Worrall and David Osit bring us into the world of the Green family who live in Loveland, Colorado. Ryan, the father, is an indie video game developer. Amy, the mother, is a writer. Joel has three young brothers. Ryan and his creative team are developing a video game called “That Dragon, Cancer*” as a way to honor Joel and to document the family’s experience of “raising a child who is supposed to die.” The film begins when Joel is three-years old and it follows the every day life of the family as well as the development of the video game.

*Dr. Meredith MacMartin discussed That Dragon, Cancer for Pallimed back in 2013. -Ed.


Thank You For Playing (2015) - Official Teaser from Thank You For Playing on Vimeo.

**Warning: Spoilers ahead**

Joel was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer at age one and over four years of recurring tumors, surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy treatments he has outlived all the times the doctors thought he would die. Because of these treatments Joel can’t speak but that doesn’t keep him from being playful, loving and full of laughter. In the lighter moments of the film it is endearing to see all the brothers play together and to see how much they love and care for Joel.

In “That Dragon, Cancer,” Joel is a brave knight who fights the cancer dragon. Since babies can’t kill dragons, God fights for Joel. God can win. The Greens are Christians, and like so many of our families, their faith helps to sustain them through Joel’s illness. Players of the video game experience the life of Joel and his family at home and in the hospital. They are able to interact with Joel as he feeds a duck and they can push him on a swing. They see Joel receiving his treatments, sleeping in his hospital bed and sitting with Ryan in a hospital chair.

We see how players react to “That Dragon, Cancer” when Ryan takes an unfinished version of it to the PAX video game conference in Seattle. Players cry and are genuinely moved as they interact with Joel and progress through the game. They see that fighting cancer is a game and they experience what it is like for Joel and the family. Ryan cries as he watches the players and he realizes that there is great potential for the video game because “people get it.”

The scenes of Ryan and Joel in the hospital are heartbreaking. Ryan holds Joel and sings to comfort him. He sleeps with Joel in the hospital bed. Ryan cries and says that he feels helpless as he watches Joel receive more treatments. He wants to hold on tight to Joel and to never let him go. Ryan shares these experiences so that others can see what it is like to have a child with cancer. They are also helpful for our community to see because they show us what parents are thinking and feeling when their child comes to us for care.

When Joel’s brain tumors multiply and grow, the family travels to California so that he can take part in a clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco. The family tries to live a normal life as we see Joel receiving his treatments. It is a bittersweet time because Amy is pregnant with a girl, whom they have named Zoe. The clinical trial doesn’t work for Joel so they return to Loveland and Joel is placed on home hospice care. Family and friends surround Joel. They hold him, sing to him and pray for him. The screen fades to black and we read that Joel died on March 13, 2014 at 1:52 am.

The film resumes three months after Joel has died. We see the brothers with their newborn sister Zoe. I can’t help but wonder what life is like for them. Ryan and Amy are trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Joel’s death. They have finally decided on an ending for the video game that makes them happy and hopeful. The ending has Ryan and Amy on an island. Joel goes away from them while they stay on the island. Joel moves on and he makes it to the other side to be with God.

Ryan and Amy believe that “That Dragon, Cancer” will help people to see that there can be fulfillment, beauty and meaning in the deepest loss you can experience. Amy says that even though people will love Joel, it is love that will make the video game work. Love is what the players will experience and connect with in the game.

In the film, Ryan talks about how America is afraid of death and that we hide it behind closed doors. He wonders why we are not talking about the way things shape us because the things that make us us can be both tragic and beautiful. These two moving artistic creations, Thank You For Playing and “That Dragon, Cancer,” will help to start conversations about death, grief and loss and we all know that they are incredibly needed in our society.

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I recently viewed Thank You For Playing at the ArcLight Documentary Series in Los Angeles. I spoke with the co-directors, Malika Zouhali-Worrall and David Osit, and they are excited for the Pallimed, hospice and palliative care communities to spread the word about their film.

Thank You For Playing will be screened at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Cape Cod, MA on July 29 and at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Melbourne, Australia in August 2015. It will also screen on PBS POV in the Fall of 2016.

Information and updates about Thank You For Playing, “That Dragon, Cancer” and the Green family are available on these websites. You can also subscribe to be on their email lists.

Thank You For Playing

“That Dragon, Cancer”

The Green family blog

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Betsy Trapasso is a former hospice social worker who now leads Death Cafe LA and advocates for good end of life care. You can read more on her site or follow her on Twitter - @BetsyTrapasso. We are excited to have her writing here at Pallimed!

Photo Credit: Still and poster from the movie "Thank You for Playing"

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