“21 Below” is a lot of different stories wrapped into one — the difficulty of living with a child condemned to die from Tay-Sachs, the choices parents are forced to accept from their grown children, how racial and socioeconomic differences inform our actions — but at its most basic level, it’s about the crazy things that love makes us do. “21 Below” is the story about a family and the different paths that two of its daughters have taken: Karen is pregnant with her third child by two different fathers, while Sharon is pregnant with her first child from a committed relationship. Their mother, Peggy, doesn’t approve of Karen’s choices but her love for her daughter (as well as her dying granddaughter, Maya) keeps her from abandoning Karen altogether, and Sharon’s love for her sister keeps her from leaving the family to its own miseries.
Somewhere, Puck is laughing at what fools we mortals be, but audiences are transfixed by the tale because of how close the filmmakers were able to get to this middle class family and the problems they had. “It’s a very intimate movie,” director Samantha Buck. “People have had this visceral reaction, defending some characters, hating others.” That reaction is prompted by the critical distance that Ms. Buck and her team were able to maintain during filming and in the editing bay: They don’t take sides. “We didn’t want to put our own judgment on the family,” said producer Jenny Maguire. “We just wanted to show daughters coming from the same family who have made different life choices.”
Keeping that distance took a two step editing process: first, the 90 or so hours of footage was culled into a rough cut by editor Frank Reynolds. “That first cut was about structure and fairness,” said Ms. Buck. During the second cut, put together with Jenny Golden, Ms. Buck allowed herself to love the family again. “The mush of both Jenny and Frank together gave it structure and heart,” said Ms. Maguire, whose reaction after that first cut was “there’s no heart, there’s no heart, there’s no heart! We were missing that because Sharon and that family were such beautiful people.” “21 Below” plays at Silverdocs once more, at 6:30 tonight.