Standing over the kitchen sink, slowly cutting the inside out of a fresh strawberry, actress Selma Blair marvels at the control of her steady hands as she claims a small victory over her handling of the sharp blade. Filled with joy and accomplishment, it is clear this act means the world to her in the moment. And it should. This is just one of many intimate scenes captured in director Rachel Fleit’s documentary Introducing, Selma Blair as she chronicles Blair’s medical journey.
Many remember when Blair walked the red carpet at the Vanity Fair 2019 Oscar party looking absolutely gorgeous in a flowing gown and complementary cane. In October 2018, she announced on Instagram that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). “I have probably had this incurable disease for 15 years at least. And I am relieved to at least know. And share.” For many who live with chronic illness, it is not uncommon for a diagnosis to occur years after symptoms first appear. Doctors dismissing pain, saying it is all in their head, or continuously referring them to someone else can be just as frustrating and emotionally exhausting as dealing with the physical pain itself.
The National MS Society defines multiple sclerosis as “an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.” It’s incurable and the symptoms can range from fatigue to vision problems, tremors, speech problems and spasticity. Fleit documents Blair’s experience after her diagnosis and during her stem-cell procedure at a hospital in Chicago.
Blair invites audiences into some of the most emotionally vulnerable moments of her life, many of which are heartbreaking to watch. As the title suggests, the documentary is an introduction and a new way for audiences to get to know her – flaws and all. It consists of scenes where Blair speaks directly into the camera as if in an interview, hand-held footage as she lays alone in bed, playful moments with her son at home, other times reminiscing about her experiences on set and doing fashion covers during the ‘90s. She states that she is very aware of Hollywood’s perception of her as a supporting actress, always there to make her co-stars look better. This is mostly evident in her roles as Vivian Kinsington in Legally Blonde as well as Cecile Caldwell in Cruel Intentions. Everything from her appearance to her performance is not only picked apart and criticized by Blair herself, but she explains that her mother – a judgmental and impossible person to please – did the same thing. Audiences get a glimpse into their estranged relationship and the pressure bestowed upon Blair to be perfect, while also limiting what she could and could do or who she could and could not be. Similar to how MS has ravaged her body, so has Blair’s mother wreaked havoc on her self-worth and potential over the years. However, as audiences will see, Blair laughs through the pain and becomes her own support and ultimate savior.
In the second half of the documentary, the beloved and heartwarmingly quirky actress takes part in a weeks-long stem-cell transplant procedure that temporarily dismantles her immune system through chemotherapy. The cells are then reinserted to strengthen the immune system. Blair emotionally breaks down multiple times during the time of her treatment work and discusses how she was advised to make plans for her afterlife preferences, just to be prepared. As much as she appears to be making this documentary for herself, it seems as though she is also chronicling her journey for fellow chronically ill individuals, her young son, as well as her mother – this time, on her own terms.
Blair bravely lets audiences witness her weakest points, complete with uncontrollable tears, trouble articulating words and the inability to control her limbs. While some scenes are utterly heartbreaking, Blair still maintains a spunky personality and jokes about her affliction to help stay positive. She even provides tips for finding cute canes on the internet and apparently certain vibrators double as fantastic neck massagers. Finding pleasure and peace by floating face down in her swimming pool or playing a light game of dodgeball with her son, she seeks to soak up all the sweet moments that she can. In a way, she not only reminds herself to be thankful for the little things and viewers will realize just how much humans can take their body for granted.
The transparent account of Blair’s MS journey is one of strength on all fronts: physical, emotional, and mental. There are some informative details peppered throughout the film to explain the illness itself and the numbers of those afflicted. However, the documentary solely focuses on Blair’s experience from her perspective without interviews or much commentary from co-stars or friends. It could have been interesting to explore her engaging with other chronically ill individuals or discussing the disease on a more macro level, especially navigating the broken American healthcare system. But this is her story, for better or worse.
Introducing, Selma Blair rips the Band-Aid off society’s view of chronic illness with a raw portrayal of her medical diagnosis that is authenticated in its emotional and physical intensity. And yet, Fleit is still able to capture a delicate yet playful representation of chronic autoimmune illness that is filled with hope, thanks to an actress who ultimately cultivates her own support, strength, and perseverance no matter what stands in her way.
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