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At Sundance 2020, an unlikely spotlight: your aging parents

From fiction to documentary to horror, movies about caring for the elderly occupied every corner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

Dick Johnson in a scene from the film “Dick Johnson is Dead,” which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Provided by the Sundance Institute

PARK CITY — Viggo Mortensen said he’s turned down a lot of work — good work, maybe even career-defining work — in recent years. Sometimes, friends even asked him if he was still acting. Yes, Mortensen remained a working actor, but he was also a caretaker. His parents suffered from dementia, and needed him close by.

“There are a lot of issues that you learn to deal with,” Mortensen said while speaking with the Deseret News in Park City. “How do you respect someone’s dignity, privacy and independence and still protect them from themselves, and society from them?”

Mortensen’s new film, “Falling” — which he wrote, directed, produced and scored — also stars Mortensen as a son struggling to care for his aging father. The previous night, “Falling” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was chosen as the festival’s closing night film. That choice seemed fitting: Movies about the elderly, and the challenges their children face once they become a parent’s primary caregiver, populated every corner of the Sundance slate this year. Features (“Falling,” “The Father”), documentaries (“Dick Johnson is Dead,” “The Mole Agent”) and even horror films (“Amulet”) tackled the subject throughout Sundance’s 11 days. “Minari,” a Korean drama that became the biggest hit at this year’s festival, is partly about how an ailing grandmother impacts her progeny.

“Ninety-nine percent of people don’t have all that money (for) 24/7 caregivers,” Mortensen said. “So I think it makes sense that people are making movies related to that.”

Florian Zeller, a renowned French playwright who brought an adaptation of his play “The Father” to Sundance this year, told the Deseret News, “everyone has to deal with this matter. There are many, many movies talking about that now, and I’m not surprised, because this is the saddest issue of our time.”

Lance Henriksen, left, and Viggo Mortensen in a scene from the film “Falling,” which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Provided by the Sundance Institute

The statistics back Zeller up. According to a 2015 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP, more than 34 million U.S. citizens have provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older in the last 12 months. Nearly 16 million of these adult family caregivers look after someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. During the 2000s, the number of adults taking care of aging parents tripled — and the Population Reference Bureau reported that by 2060, the number of seniors over 65 living in the U.S. is expected to double.

As life expectancies increase, adults are looking after their elderly parents for longer time periods. According to Parenting our Parents, an online community for adults in this situation, 15% of current caregivers say they’ve spent at least 10 years looking after their parents. Primary family caregivers of those with dementia average nine hours of caregiving time per day. A report by the AARP Public Policy Institute revealed that the average adult child who is a caregiver loses more than $300,000 in lifetime wages and retirement benefits as a result of their caregiving. This wage loss can deplete one’s own retirement savings.

These harsh realities manifest in cinema — perhaps particularly at a festival like Sundance, which has long been known for showcasing films exploring family dynamics.

In “Falling,” Mortensen’s character deals with considerable cruelty. The character’s father, Willis, is a perpetually crass, violent and suspicious man who tormented his family long before he ever had dementia. Of all the feeble parents in this year’s Sundance films, Willis might be the least sympathetic. But Mortensen’s character is patient, often astoundingly so — he seems to embody the lessons that the real-life Mortensen gained though years of family caregiving. He’s been through this before, his parents are gone now, he understands their struggle for what it really was.

“And it’s sad when you see your parents get dementia, because you’re losing a part of them, but you have to adjust. What is it that they need? What’s going to make them comfortable? It’s not about you, it’s about them,” he explained. “That’s an ego problem you have to deal with. … If you want to be useful, get over it. Cry, by all means, be upset. But get on with it.”

Zeller’s “The Father” stars Anthony Hopkins as a parent in a more advanced stage of dementia. Almost the entire film is told from Hopkins’ character’s perspective — an approach, Zeller said, that lets audiences “experience a slice of dementia.” The character’s world is in constant upheaval as his memory fails him. Hopkins plays the part with kaleidoscopic emotion. Sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s afraid, sometimes he’s embarrassed by his loosening grip on reality.

“The shame is a door, and when you open the door, you have something else, like anger, like fears, like mistrust,” Zeller described.

“When someone is suffering from dementia,” he added, “something is disappearing about that person — his memories, but something more than his memories. His own personality, in a way, is disappearing. But there is still something remaining, which is the thing that is connected to the heart and not the brain.”

Director Kristen Johnson, left, and her father Dick Johnson at the world premiere of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 25.
Provided by the Sundance Institute

This reduction gets put on display in “Dick Johnson is Dead,” a film by acclaimed cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, which premiered during Sundance’s opening weekend and will come to Netflix later this year. Though it’s technically a documentary, “Dick Johnson is Dead” might be the most surreal film of the bunch. As Johnson’s father, Dick, begins succumbing to dementia, they film a number of fantastical fake deaths — getting crushed by a falling air-conditioning unit, falling down a flight of stairs, among other imagined demises — all to negate their fear of the impending unknown. Kirsten Johnson also stages a premature funeral for Dick, with all his family and friends in attendance. They also film elaborate, whimsical scenes of the afterlife, complete with angels and musicians and choreographed dance numbers.

“This is a rare, extravagantly playful response to the personal terror and tumult of aging and watching loved ones fade before our own eyes,” Variety magazine reported. “Uncowed by the gravity of their subject, filmmaker and subject are mutually happy to risk kitsch, bad taste and inky gallows humor in the process — because, well, whose death is it anyway?”

At his core, Dick remains the same gentle, good-natured, accommodating guy he’s always been. But his memory progressively fails him. He requires more and more care. At one point, a smiling but misty-eyed Dick says he used to be Johnson’s father, but now he’s like her little brother.

“We always thought of this as … an experiment,” Johnson told the audience at the film’s Sundance premiere, while Dick stood next to her onstage. “How could we use cinema to … hold my father together as he is falling apart?

“He watches (the film) over and over, and it gives him back his friends, his home, his office,” she added. “He loves seeing it over and over again. … But he forgets. He’s literally in the middle of a scene and he forgets. He forgot we were coming here, he forgot this movie was being screened, he will not remember that he just watched it. So we are giving him present time.”

A scene from the documentary “The Mole Agent,” which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Provided by the Sundance Institute

According to Parenting our Parents, 90% of senior parents wish to remain in their own home instead of joining an assisted living facility. This year’s Sundance films showed the full spectrum of options for these aging parents — and the complicated issues these options can present. In the Chilean documentary “The Mole Agent,” a private investigator hires Sergio, an 83-year-old widower, to live in an assisted living facility for three months, to find out whether the staff is mistreating one of its elderly residents. “The Mole Agent” reveals the debilitating loneliness and abandonment these seniors face. Some haven’t had a family member visit them for years.

On the other end of the spectrum are residents of The Villages, an enormous senior community in central Florida. The Villages has 130,000 residents, a handful of which get profiled in the Sundance doc “Some Kind of Heaven.” It premiered during Sundance’s opening weekend, and shows the other side of senior living. The Villages exist as a kind of retiree’s utopia: endless golf courses, swimming pools, restaurants, events and fellow seniors. At the film’s premiere, director Lance Oppenheim said that for many residents, The Villages are an escape from typical family responsibilities.

But all is not perfect in paradise. Oppenheim’s film focuses on residents who, he said, exist “on the fringes of the fantasy.” One couple considers divorcing after the husband faces jail time for drug possession. Another woman grieves the recent death of her husband. One aging grifter lives in his van, scouring The Villages for a wealthy female companion. The Villages is a lively place, but it doesn’t provide space for grief, or strife, or any of adulthood’s other existential concerns.

“I was interested in really showing how even at the twilight of your life … things aren’t really resolved,” Oppenheim told the Deseret News. “To me, the characters in the movie are not old people, they’re just people. They’re just normal, everyday people. And the only thing that is different from me to them is time.”

Viggo Mortensen at the world premiere of “Falling” at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Park City.
Provided by the Sundance Institute

How, exactly, should America integrate its growing senior demographic? This year’s Sundance films showcased myriad approaches. Their common thread, though, was showing modern Western society’s separatist impulse. That impulse, these films argue, makes real integration an enormous challenge, on both an individual and societal level.

Oppenheim said he thinks age-segregated communities like The Villages can perpetuate stereotypes of the elderly, because it excuses younger generations from interacting with them. Mortensen, meanwhile, thinks American politics have devalued the country’s existing programs for elderly care and quality of life — placing an imbalanced burden on those who care for the elderly.

Treating the elderly as a source for knowledge and history, rather than just a burden on our time and resources, Mortensen said, would also go a long way.

“Once that book is closed, that resource material is gone, so be there for that,” he said. “If you want to be selfish, be selfish in that way: I want to have as much family history as I can get before that link is obsolete.”

For Zeller, films like “Falling” and “The Father” and “Dick Johnson is Dead” can improve how we care for the elderly — and how we care for ourselves.

“The point of having movies about this issue is not just about making people cry,” Zeller said. “It’s about making people feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves, which is humanity, and the fact that you can share those emotions. And as soon as you feel that you are not alone with this pain, something new appears. The pain remains the pain, but it is meaningful to feel that you are brothers and sisters in pain and disease. I think art is here for that reason.”

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