When he was one year old, a doctor diagnosed Ami Ankilewitz with muscular dystrophy and told his mother Helena that he would not live past six years of age. In the intervening years the family moved from Dallas to Tel Aviv and it is here, on his thirty-fourth birthday, that Ami announces his intention to travel across the United States and present himself to Doctor Cordova as "39 Pounds of Love."
Producer/writer/director Dani Menkin met Ami in a Tel Aviv bar surrounded by his friends and, fascinated, began documenting his life, but although this winner of 2005's Israeli Ophir Award as Best Documentary Film has three major and one minor plot strands, it still feels padded out at seventy minutes. "39 Pounds of Love" may have made a terrific short documentary subject, but at feature length it is repetitive and patchily paced.
After an opening sequence of home movies taken around the time Ami was diagnosed, the director cuts to the birthday party, where we are amazed by Ami's unique form and sense of humor despite all. Ami's parents are against his grandiose plan, calling it a fantasy, but his best friend Araf supports him. We learn that Ami can only move one finger on his left hand, but he is a night owl who idealizes his relationship with his former 21 year-old Romanian caretaker Christina animating simple shorts featuring birds in their likenesses on his computer (although Ami is frequently referred to as an animator, one must assume that the work shown here is his first commercial endeavor).
Before the trip begins, Menkin takes us back a year to fill us in on Ami's unrequited love for the lovely Christina. Ami is shown as a fun loving guy with a Harley tattoo and love of whiskey. A devoted caretaker, Christina is shown in a montage (she clearly loves the camera) which ends with a confessional scene where she tells of her inability to reciprocate Ami's romantic yearnings (an occupational hazard for women, it seems, as evidenced by several feature films, most recently the Irish "Rory O'Shea Was Here"). Ami impresses again with the strength required to ask her to leave and the poetic explanation for his decision ('She's like air without oxygen').
The trip begins in California with a rented camper carrying Ami, Araf, another friend and Dani with his sound and camera men. There's a desert meeting with a group of strangers who stop to hear Ami's story and a dramatic medical emergency at the Grand Canyon when Ami passes out, but he will not be deterred from continuing. Then the group stop in Dallas to surprise Ami's estranged brother Oscar who he last spoke to several years before when Oscar expressed resentment over their mother Helena's complete attention to his brother at his own expense. The reunion is happy and Helena arrives also, but the filmmaker lingers on this chapter too long and the film begins to sag. Even worse is the invented drama of finding Doctor Cordova, whom the group appear to have assumed would be in the same place he was thirty-three years earlier - if this was Ami's ultimate quest, wouldn't some preplanning have been called for? When they finally do find the doctor in Miami, Ami's 'message to the world,' that with a love for life anything can be accomplished, frankly feels cliched and entirely overblown as presented here. Far better is a conspiratorially shared anecdote between the brothers about how Oscar almost accidently killed Ami that Helena hears for the first time. The film wraps with another fulfillment of Ami's wishes as he rides in a Harley's sidecar (slowly).
Menkin's film is admirable in the time and access used to tell Ami's story, but it is fairly typical reality footage interspersed with interview segments (Araf, Christina, Ami himself), Ami's animations (his bird also appears sporadically superimposed over live footage and would have made more impact if used altogether more sparingly) and the occasional enlivening cutaway shot. Composer Chris Gubisch does the filmmaker no favors with a treacly score.
In the end, though, "39 Pounds of Love" is one of those films one feels one should admire because of its subject. In reality it may only really work for those who know him.
If you have the resolve, you can capture the moon. This attitude lives deep within the heart and soul of Ami Ankilewitz who, in this first year on earth, was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and expected to die before his sixth birthday. Now, over 30 years later, Ami is still around as “39 Pounds of Love.”
Director/writer/producer Dani Menkin met Ami some years ago and was impressed by the charisma and survival sense of the young man. They have been good friends ever since and Menkin agreed to chronicle Ami’s decision to make a cross US trip – something akin to climbing Mount Everest for a normally functioning person.
Joining Ami in his quest (beside Menkin’s crew of seven) is Asaf. Asaf is Ami’s best friend and former caretaker who agreed to tend to his friend’s special needs on the journey. They’ll be making the trek, after they land in Los Angeles, in a specially decked out camper to accommodate Ami’s unique circumstance – his disease is so debilitating he only has the use of only one finger on his left hand. Despite his handicap, Ami is a talented computer animation artist.
One of the things that lead Ami to make his special journey is his unrequited love for Christina, a young woman who cared him and whom Ami fell in love. But, she loves him only as a friend and, hurt, Ami asks her to leave. Christina’s departure sparks Ami to pursue his goal to traverse America – and ride a Harley.
Menkin’s video document tries to do too many things but I think that this is because of the lack of focus by its subject. Just Ami’s journey across America should be fuel enough to make an entertaining and thought provoking documentary work. But, Ami’s agenda has the additional goal of finding the doctor, Dr. Cordova, who told his mother that her boy would be dead by age six. But, wait, there’s more! Ami also plans to stop and visit his estranged brother whom he hasn’t seen in years. And, their mother shows up, too, and the family reunites and they all set off to find Dr. Cordova.
The hunt for Dr. Cordova sequence has a manufactured feel as Ami and his family make their way to the place they last knew doctor to be practicing, Remember, that was over 30 years ago, and Ami apparently did zero research to narrow down the possibilities of where the doctor might be. The result is he and his friends spend an inordinate amount of time rambling around Texas asking people “where is Dr. Cordova?” The point of Ami’s planned confrontation is obscure, too. Is he going to tell the doctor off or rub it in his face that he, the doctor, was wrong? The final confrontation is non-confrontational. And, yes, Ami gets his wish and rides a Harley.
39 Pounds of Love” is a mildly inspirational film that lacks focus. Ami Ankilewitz is an incredibly resolved individual who, with a little (well, a lot) of help from his friends, is able to fulfill his dreams. There are so many goals and desires, including love, the film is watered down to the point that its relatively short run time 74 minutes) seems very long. I give it a C.
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