39 Pounds comes out fighting like a featherweight

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Ami Ankilewitz has a feisty personality, a quick wit, a talent for computer animation and muscular dystrophy.

The Texas-born Israeli is truly one of a kind and would make a terrific subject for a documentary. So it is astounding, and a little depressing, that “39 Pounds of Love” is such a saccharine, banal exercise.

The 74-minute film, which flaps and strains to reach even that abbreviated length, inexplicably made the short list of 15 films vying for the five Oscar nominations for this year’s Best Documentary Feature.

“39 Pounds of Love” premiered locally in October at the Mill Valley Film Festival and opens Friday, Dec. 9 around the Bay Area. Director Dani Merkin will be at shows in San Rafael, San Francisco and Berkeley on opening weekend.

The 34-year-old Ankilewitz, with his Harley-Davidson tattoo and taste for whiskey, is made to order for an offbeat portrait of an unpredictable artist or a frank, gritty look at the daily life of a disabled person.

“You know,” confides his best friend, Asaf, “this Ami, he’s not the innocent person that everybody thinks. He’s not the good boy he looks like.”

Alas, we get little more than a glimpse of the rebellious Ami. Instead, Menkin opts for a transparently sentimental exercise aimed straight at the heartstrings and tear ducts.

“39 Pounds of Love,” which is mostly in English, is comprised of three parts, each explicitly intended to erase the distance between the extremely physically challenged Ankilewitz and the audience.

The first is his love for his caregiver and friend, Christina, a Romanian redhead who’s the most vibrant presence in the film. We often tend to forget, the movie suggests, that people confined to wheelchairs are human beings with the same needs, desires and impulses as everyone else.

His computer animation is employed as a recurring visual element, although it is used rather too obviously to underscore his emotional state. With one finger, which is all he can move, Ankilewitz crafts brief sequences detailing the romantic ambitions and frustrations of a featherless bird.

The third thread, which provides the documentary with its herky-jerky narrative thrust, follows Ankilewitz on a return trip to the United States, accompanied by a couple of attentive pals. He has various aims — to try and clear his head of Christina, ride a chopper, drop in on his estranged brother in Dallas — but the film would have us believe that payback is at the top of his list.

See, the doctor who diagnosed Ankilewitz as an infant predicted he wouldn’t live past 6. More than three decades later, Ankilewitz wants to find that doctor and tell him firsthand how wrong he was. However, there’s some key dramatic element missing from his search.

Most likely, this stems from the paucity of moments during which we don’t sense people being aware of the camera and modulating their behavior accordingly. Our trust that real events are unfolding before our eyes is gradually supplanted by the sense that they have been set up, or at least trimmed and sanitized during editing.

Ultimately, “39 Pounds of Love” feels like a con job to keep the real Ankilewitz from us. We’re not invited on a trip of courage and discovery so much as asked to swallow prepackaged, smiley-face inspiration.

There’s a place for that, and it’s scripted feature films. Even at this stage, when documentaries have box-office standing, some hokum-free reality must be allowed to intrude.

“39 Pounds of Love” opens Friday, Dec. 9 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Act in Berkeley and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Dani Menkin will be present for a Q&A and reception 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Rafael, at Q&As both evening shows Dec. 10 at Opera Plaza, and at the late afternoon and early evening shows at the Act.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.