Film reviews and more since 2009

Introducing, Selma Blair (2021) review

Dir. Rachel Fleit

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★

Selma Blair has long had an arresting quality, mostly as a supporting actress, that many leading ladies could only hope to have. She’s a vibrant blend of sweet and salty, with a dose of masculinity while simultaneously exuding Old Hollywood femininity. She has the rare, dual-handed quality of being darkly funny yet caustically honest, sometimes within the same scene. One need not look any further than her memorable roles in such films as Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde, or even John Waters’ A Dirty Shame to catch my drift.

Perhaps this is why her 2018 multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis not only came as a surprise but delivered a pang of shock that made us involuntarily shake our heads and exasperate in disbelief. Here is an enigmatic, eternally youthful young woman with more talent than perhaps even she realizes bound for a turbulent rollercoaster that will test her physically and her family emotionally. The word “fair” applies to something that houses Ferris wheels and funnel cakes. It’s never once applied to life.

Now arrives Introducing, Selma Blair, a documentary that has a lot in common with 2016’s Gleason. If you recall, that was the film that explored former NFL safety Steve Gleason’s ALS diagnosis and his subsequent life with the miserable disease. Through cell-phone video and uncommonly intimate documentation, we saw the physical degradation of a person before our very eyes. The doc concluded with Gleason in an iron lung. I’ll never forget leaving the theater despondent, my face moist from crying multiple times over the last two hours. I named it one of the best films of that year and I’ll probably never watch it again.

While Introducing, Selma Blair certainly ends on a more optimistic note than Gleason, it no less packs an emotional punch. Working with director Rachel Fleit, Blair documents her life with MS in unflinching detail, demystifying its debilitating symptoms. The film chronicles Blair’s journey to Chicago to receive the stem-cell transplant she hopes will provide some relief, along with her struggle to maintain a functional relationship with her son, Arthur. He’s just old enough to know his mother isn’t well but just young enough not to know the reasons why. A painful in-between.

Paradoxically, the most yet least surprising attribute of Fleit’s film is how funny it is. Granted, it’d be difficult to make a film about Selma Blair the person without even moderate doses of humor. Blair gifts us three good laughs within the first minute of this documentary.

It begins with Blair applying makeup from Kim Kardashian, sent personally from her. She gives her a name-drop because Kardashian could “use the publicity,” after all. She then questions whether or not applying the mogul’s “Nude” line of makeup is cultural appropriation. She wouldn’t dare want to appropriate someone else’s nude-state. But important here is Blair’s appearance within these first few minutes. Aided by a cane, she walks rather competently and her speech is strong.

But then she sits face-to-face with Fleit’s camera, and the second her emotional support dog leaves her lap, the gravity of the situation unfolds. The lights, the makeup, the setting, it all feels…too much for her. She loses her speech in what seems like an instant, stammering through her words before closing her eyes tightly, trying to suppress all the stimulus around her. She attempts to laugh it off and is somewhat successful, I’ll say. Yet you can’t mistake the frustration in her eyes.

Blair’s grace throughout the film is something for which to strive. She must be one of the select few individuals who can record herself on a hospital bed in the middle of vicious chemotherapy ahead of her stem-cell transplant and still be able to make a self-deprecating joke about being half-Jewish. However, there are times when humor is understandably too far away to grasp. The documentary’s most difficult scene to endure is Blair struggling to carry herself just days after her operation, yet realizing after significant time away that her son would ostensibly be just fine without her, living with his dad.

As if hellbent on assuring Introducing, Selma Blair isn’t too saccharine, Blair still finds ways to follow up these moments with humor, showing exactly the kind of spirit we need to possess. Keep laughing to keep from crying; that’s a philosophy I myself hold dear. At one point, she’s sifting through magazines showing her post-diagnosis, eventually grabbing her cover-issue of Seventeen: “this is the worst Seventeen magazine cover I’ve ever seen…and I’m on it!,” she exclaims. Earlier, she opens an Amazon package expecting a “neck massager.” She accidentally ordered a vibrator. And not one you could pass off as a cutesy massager. This is the second time such a thing has happened.

Blair’s oft-hilarious quips provide some welcomed relief to some of the slightly cloying aspects of Introducing, Selma Blair, namely the overuse of music. This is a documentary largely made up of personal footage. To see much of it boasting music feels overbearing at times. Regardless of any given clip’s tone, the soundtrack can pluck us out of the rawness of the moment, which is integral to these difficult yet moving glimpses into another person’s reality.

Also having an adverse effect on the project is the haste of the final 20 minutes, as if there was a stern 90-minute runtime which Fleit couldn’t exceed. Blair’s narration helps guide the project to a reassuring close, but the way it glosses over the start of the pandemic and the reoccurrence of her fatigue post-transplant is jarring given the attention to detail that preceded it. These are somewhat petty gripes at the end of the day. The depth of access is no less worth the price of admission, which is merely a $5 subscription (or free trial, if you’re like me) to Discovery+.

NOTE: Introducing, Selma Blair is now available to stream on Discovery+.

Directed by: Rachel Fleit.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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