I don’t want to suggest that the HBO documentary The Lion’s Mouth Opens is this year’s Dear Zachary, but nothing you watch in 2015 will likely elicit as many tears. What I cannot tell you without spoiling the short, 26-minute documentary, however, is whether those will be tears of joy or tears of devastation.
The Lion’s Mouth Opens concerns 32-year-old actress and filmmaker Marianna Palka. She’s very close friends with Bryce Dallas Howard and her husband, Seth Gabel (Fringe). and the former longtime girlfriend and still close friend of Jason Ritter. I tell you this only because all three actors are also in the documentary. They are there to offer support to Palka on the night before she finds out whether she has Huntington’s Disease, a horrific debilitating disease akin to a cross between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It is, in effect, a death sentence.
It’s also hereditary, and Palka’s sister and cousin have already been diagnosed with the mutated gene, which basically takes away your ability to control your body and your mind in your late 30s or early 40s. Palka is intimately familiar with the disease, as she saw her once, perfect fairy-tale father succumb to it. It’s brutal.
Since the 90s, however, those who have Huntington’s Disease in the family have been able to test themselves to see if they have the mutated gene. If they don’t have it, they can go on living their lives normally. If they do, they have to live with the knowledge that the symptoms could begin to occur at any moment, and once the disease is full-blown, you end up in the worst kind of living hell. Just as painfully, you become an incredible burden and source of pain for your family. The suicide rates of those with Huntington’s are very high.
The Lion’s Mouth Opens takes place over the course of a dinner the night before Palka finds out the results, where her friends all get together to console, encourage and comfort her until the next morning when her friends Moet Hashimoto and Bryce Dallas Howard accompany her to the doctor’s office, where an envelope with her results resides.
The documentary short from director Lucy Walker is beautifully done, elegant, brief, and incredibly powerful. By the time Palka finds out the results of her DNA test, you’ll be prepared to weep openly, powerfully, and embarrassingly in front of your loved ones for either result. It truly is an incredibly little documentary, and it’s also weird to see these actors with whom we are familiar rally around Palka and react to the outcome of her test with rawness and honesty. It’s an amazing tribute to life, to living, and to being grateful for what little time we are privileged to have on this Earth with our friends, family, and other loved ones, and it cannot be recommended enough.