See how Lars Ulrich brought a family together. Yeah, I’m shocked as well.
In the cacophony of Internet pabulum and mediocre reality shows where fame takes the spotlight before talent, it’s easy to become cynical about the world. That’s why when I get an opportunity to watch a great film that celebrates positivity, and an unwillingness to budge to the pressures and spoils of “evil”, I get incredibly excited. That’s probably why I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings trilogy so much, because in every movie, at every moment, this mixed group of knights and hobbits march onwards into seemingly impossible tasks –fighting entire armies, giant spiders, and saving middle earth. And why? All for the common good. The Matrix, 300, Inglorious Basterds all these films do the exact same inspiring thing in featuring a group of misfit underdogs teaming up for one hell of an adventure. Whether it’s hunting down Nazi’s in occupied France, or fighting off entire armies with three hundred soldiers, one common goal (for the sake of goodness) enables people to do impossible things, and is absolutely intoxicating to watch. And today folks, we appear to be blessed with another glorious addition, Mission to Lars. Endearing, emotional and fun, this heartwarming documentary may not involve saving middle earth or fighting robots, but it perfectly epitomizes the resiliency of humans, and is an instant underdog classic.
We begin in a sleepy English town, with the affable subject of the film, Tom Spicer. He is a man of routine, simplicity, and the occasional head banging session, and has dealt with Fragile X Syndrome – a form of autism – his entire life. Wearing a grin and working away in a paper factory, Tom has never asked for much except for one thing; to meet his idol, Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica. A dream thought impossible until siblings Kate and William step in. Estranged from their brother and wishing to rekindle their relationship, Kate and William decide to make Tom’s one wish come true, by taking him out of his residential care facility and going on an epic road trip with him across America to find Lars. But things quickly go to hell as they discover both the limitations of Tom’s disability in such a chaotic and uncertain environment, and even worse, that getting to the drummer of one of the world’s biggest rock bands is a lot harder than expected. With only, “Three cities… three chances” to meet Lars and make this connection for Tom, the pressure mounts and what started off as a family adventure to find a rock star slowly becomes an intimate look into the complicated dynamics of a family with learning disabilities.
And did I mention Metallica puts on three killer shows during all of this?
Okay, so clearly we’re digging through some emotionally heavy material here, yet, Mission to Lars so beautifully executes it in a nuanced way that the audience never really feels overwhelmed. In fact, its execution is so subtle that you hardly notice how every emotional victory is almost derived from some trite task being accomplished. Like when Tom finally high fives Kate after she has attempted to do so multiple times, you feel elated. And that’s the real beauty of this film: its ability to draw you into the Spicer’s insular problems and make them visually real. In many ways, by doing this the film wonderfully paints an insightful portrait of Fragile X syndrome. We experience the anxiety, loneliness, and struggle of Tom as he attempts to overcome his defence mechanisms, and feel the cathartic reward with him when he succeeds.
But what really sells me on Mission to Lars is the driving force that propels this whole film, Kate. A loving sister who carries a tinge of melancholy, she is both the cheerleader and team for this mission, and for better or worse goes through absolute hell because of this. Luckily for us, her essential goal (to help out a loved one) makes her incredibly accessible right from the beginning and allows us as audience members to firmly plant ourselves in her shoes and rise and fall with her every hurdle. What’s most interesting about Kate’s journey is the sort of Fragile X isolation she experiences in being the spirited optimist amongst less than enthusiastic cohorts – she has one filmmaker brother who almost borders complete ambivalence to what is going on, save for the fact that he is making a film, and another brother who is so torn up between his anxiety and fears that he is often reserved and stressed. This simultaneously makes her journey incredibly difficult, and all too fascinating to watch as she continues to go on with her plan, even as it erodes before he eyes. You’d think the constant rejection and emotional distance between her and her brothers would destroy her optimism, and cause her to give up, but time and time again Kate dusts herself off and continues onwards.
At its core Mission to Lars is about redemption; a sister making good by her little brother. And is a great exhibition of the human spirit. In Tom we see our struggle to get the things we want and in Kate we see our failure to connect with those whom we’re supposed to be closest with. But as they grow in the film, we grow with them and see ourselves in Tom’s inner strength and Kate’s unrelenting compassion. This film is truly endearing, incredibly inspiring, and refreshingly honest. But most importantly, it believes; in the strength of ordinary people, and in determination. It says a small town family can come together and rise above insurmountable odds, no matter how emotionally exhausting the circumstances are, and do amazing things. In a chaotic and somewhat ambivalent culture, belief is essential, because as Kate says, “I’m not betting on anything, but you have to have hope”. Because if we don’t, how can anything great be done?