Still: A Michael J Fox Movie – Film Review (Sundance 2023)

This documentary about Michael J. Fox covers his life and, of course, his experience of having Parkinson’s Disease. It’s a pretty straightforward chronological version of his personal story, his work as an actor, and his involvement with Parkinson’s Disease research after his diagnosis with an early onset form of the disorder in 1991. Fox did not go public with his diagnosis until the third series of his show Spin City in 1998.

The focus is on two major events in his life—the diagnosis and, of course, some film called Back to the Future. Much of his TV work is long forgotten, but with a lead role in a film like that, it will be remembered. The story starts with his life as a young kid, when, in his own words, he was “a potential fuck-up.” The documentary’s title is a reference to the fact that he was a very hyperactive kid who had problems staying still, and while he is now stiller by his illness, the tremors he has mean he’s constantly in motion. Fox’s struggles in his early years in Hollywood after moving down from Canada, and eventual success with Family Ties and other television work, are covered along the way. He had the most insane schedule ever for months, doing Family Ties in the daytime and Back to the Future at night after the original Marty McFly, Eric Stoltz, was let go. Fox had been their first choice all along, but wasn’t seen as available.

Interestingly, three other people who were involved with a Canadian sitcom Fox was on before Family Ties, Leo and Me, also ended up with early-onset Parkinsons—and this was not mentioned in the documentary but it certainly is interesting.

One of the few quibbles I had with the documentary was that there wasn’t much about his acting. Fox is very candid about his life and his struggles over the years, but even the more dramatic stuff he did, like Light of Day, Bright Lights Big City and Casualties of War, doesn’t get a mention—nor does The Frighteners. Those films were the best work he ever did, and showed that he had some range next to the comedic stuff he’s best known for. But the documentary is well-made, and there is some great archival footage included, including clips from Fox’s other film and television work. He has plenty to say about the perils of fame after it all blew up hugely after Back to the Future, when suddenly just walking down the street became difficult.

Fox always looked younger than he was—young-looking enough to play a high-school student in BTTF when he was well into his 20s—and that can make the film hard to watch. He just seems much too young to be dealing with this terrible illness. His speech is certainly affected by Parkinsons now, and the filming was obviously done on what were good days for him, but he’s chosen to tell his story while he still can. It doesn’t shy away from the days that are not good. There is a scene where you see him walking down the street and can observe how badly he limps now, and he falls regularly and needs help.

Fox seems to have come out of his experiences very well. It’s a film so what you see has probably been edited, but Parkinson’s has humbled him (and besides, he’s Canadian). He seems to go out of his ways to be nice to people he runs into. I was surprised that there were not too many interviews with other people—it’s mostly Fox telling his own story, which is fine, but it would have been nice to have some perspectives from people other than his wife.

While I would have preferred more about his dramatic work, one of the best bits in the doc was a clip from Spin City showing how he would always have something in his hand to even out the shakes. At that time his Parkinsons was only tremors on his left side, and fairly easy to camouflage like that with objects. There is also some recreated footage, and that’s something that’s usually very hit and miss in documentaries. It was really well executed here and is effective, especially the section that edits footage from Family Ties and BTTF together to give a real flavour of the hectic schedule he was working under.

Still is a very honest and unflinching documentary, and doesn’t look away from the issues Fox has with living with Parkinson’s, or his alcohol abuse when he was younger. It also doesn’t veer into pity party territory, because Fox has an optimistic outlook and has continually tried to find ways to cope with Parkinsons, as well as doing a lot of work to help other Parkinsons sufferers. His resilience is on show here, and although he has just recently retired from acting, he certainly has not given up, as this strong documentary shows.


Ian Schultz


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