The wish of a terminally ill child as the subject for a documentary?
I know, cue the cliches: strength in the face of tragedy, laughter through tears, the whole “Steel Magnolias” shtick.
Except that Dana Nachman’s touching, funny nonfiction film, “Batkid Begins,” is sheer delight. Instead of something maudlin and manipulative, Nachman has assembled what may be the year’s most joyous and surprising movie.
Most people will remember the news coverage of the November 2013 events this film unpacks. It focused on how what seemed like the entire city of San Francisco transformed itself into Gotham City for a day, so a boy named Miles Scott could have an adventure as Batman.
Piecing together footage from a multitude of sources, along with interview footage of her own, Nachman tells the story of Miles, 5-year-old son of a farm couple in rural Oregon who is diagnosed with cancer. Enamored of comic-book super-heroes, he asks to be Batman when Make-a-Wish offers to grant a request.
But Patricia Wilson, the head of Make-a-Wish in San Francisco, discovers that the idea snowballs when she starts putting it together. Wilson assumes she’ll do well to assemble a crowd of 200 to watch Miles battle one of Batman enemies in public. But when a social-media expert offers his help to round up a crowd, the event goes viral — even global — and by the day of the event, she has more than 40,000 spectators and volunteers, and an event that has everyone from the mayor on down pitching in.
Yet this isn’t just a movie about fulfilling a kid’s fantasy; it is about the big-hearted nature of a city full of strangers, who had the fee;omg and enthusiasm to help someone else’s child have a particularly magical day at a point when his life expectancy was a question mark.
Again and again, people tell Nachman’s camera that they looked at Miles and saw their own kids. That empathy is a trait uniquely missing from too many in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail when it comes to expanding affordable health insurance to poor children. These people,, however, all went out of their way to do something to help.
“The kindness of strangers,” as offered by Tennessee Williams, was meant tragically as well as ironically. Theoretically, in a world where too many people are looking to monetize everything — including one’s feeling for your fellow man — “Batkid Begins” is testament to the idea that people will always surprise you with how kind they can be.
Make no mistake: There are a lot of laughs in this film, many having to do with the unfathomable richness of a child’s imagination. You’ll be moved to tears and guffaws by “Batkid Begins,” a film for which we should all give thanks.