Distributed by Fanlight Productions, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by David Way for TV Ontario
VHS, color, 48 min.
Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University
Before Their Time is an unflinching biological and contemporary sociological portrayal of the rare genetic disorder progeria (also known as Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome) which is distinguished by rapid and accelerated aging, with either immediate onset in infancy or similar sudden acceleration in mid-life. Instead of typical two dimensional photographs from a typical medical textbook, the viewer initially encounters the disturbing visual reality of this rare disorder in the form of an energetic and articulate six year-old (Ashley) mastering a normal toddler's task of finding the correct way to put on a nightshirt. Emerging from the shirt collar is a head that bares witness to the ravages of old age. The audience then follows a day in the life of Ashley, interspersed with the scientific etiology and the likely inevitable prognosis for this small wonder, based on the few occurrences and historical documentation for this disorder.
The production strikes an excellent balance of wonder and respect for Ashley, her young, single mother, and even Ashley's grandmother, who all seem determined to allow Ashley to maintain the dignity of simple child experiences such as pride in establishing independent hygienic routines and a seemingly unselfconscious personality in a mainstreamed classroom setting. A calm neutral instrumental soundtrack provides continuity between shifts in scenes and activities. The video cinematography is simple and effective in maintaining the stark and unnerving physical incongruities and blending the scientific explanation of Ashley's genetic inheritance, including some basic explanation of the relationship between cellular senescence and the aging process. Scientific experts comment during appropriate points in sequences, though one expert in an academic lair surrounded by a stacked forest of file folders and papers seems a bit stereotypical.
The production would have more educational value if graphics had been added to spell the most important scientific terminology, but this is a minor quibble.
An intergenerational audience in any number of settings would be a suitable audience, though children under ten will probably require some support in understanding the genetic concepts. With children's motion picture and television production serving up unrealistic animated approximations of human deformities that are surely intended for humor or even ridicule, this production restores a welcome meal of unsweetened reality.