Big lessons, 'Little Man'

Published: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 11:11 p.m.


Little Man

THEATER: Hippodrome Cinema

When Nicholas James Baba-Conn made his premature entry into the world in 2002, he was given the slimmest chances of survival. He was 100 days premature and weighed less than a pound. Fitting comfortably in one's hand, Nicholas looked as helpless and fragile as a baby bird.
The documentary by his mother Nicole Conn, "Little Man," is an intensely personal tale of surrogate motherhood, difficult choices and the enormous strain special-needs children put on families. Above all, it's a testament to the will to live and how that spirit can be found in even the smallest of packages.
Seven years into their relationship, Conn and her partner, political activist Gwen Baba, chose to have a second child. Baba was the birth mother of their daughter, Gabrielle, but two years later felt she was too old to carry another, and Conn is unable to bear children. Their search for a surrogate led them to a Bay Area woman who was not entirely forthcoming about her health, which led to unforeseen complications. Early on, Conn and Baba learned the fetus was not developing properly and were faced with the difficult decision of whether to continue the pregnancy.
The couple, who live in Los Angeles, were not on the same page on the issue. Nicholas' premature arrival further complicated the issue because of the demands of his medical care. For 158 days, he remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Conn spent long days prodding doctors and nurses for information, while Baba cared for Gabrielle and kept the household going.  Conn says she did not plan the film. The day before Nicholas was born, she had purchased a digital video camera for a planned documentary on surrogacy and had it with her at the hospital. During the first three months of the baby's difficult life, Conn's brother, Brian Hoven, recorded the struggles. It was only after reluctantly reviewing that footage that Conn realized she was living an incredible story.f-z The film emphasizes Nicholas' fight for survival, but also turns the camera on Conn and Baba's difficulties in holding their relationship together and asks complex questions of the filmmaker and the audience. Conn is incredibly self-aware of her situation and questions whether she is doing the right thing for Nicholas, "When does caring become cruelty?" The film may also affect the idea of what "choice" means to people. Conn alludes to the price society pays for babies such as Nicholas in terms of the scientific advances that allow for the creation of "manufactured disabilities" in children who previously would not have survived and the state subsidies (at least in California) of their medical care. Separate films could be (and perhaps have been) made on these subjects, and it's understandable that "Little Man" cannot address them further. One quibble, however, is that the film does not reveal what happened to Mary, the surrogate mother, after Nicholas was born.f-z "Little Man" is masterfully edited by Conn, Danny Jacobsen and Sean Present as an edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat suspense story. Yet as immersed as she was as a mother in the daily life-and-death battle, Conn the filmmaker was acutely aware that life itself goes on. The film has a raw and intimate emotional quality. reminiscent of Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation." It will undoubtedly produce vastly different responses from audience members based on their own experiences and beliefs. Whether they agree with the decisions made, "Little Man" is a powerful and challenging documentary that will affect audiences long after they've passed through the lobby.

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