Director Ilya Rozhkov astounds again with his latest brilliantly executed film, Dying to Live, which was chosen as an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival’s Court Metrage, as well as by the Manhattan Film Festival where it was nominated for Best Dramatic Short and the USA Film Festival Int’l Short Film Competition where it was the Runner Up for the Best Short Film Award.
The visceral story follows a young man, Jesse, on the day he learns of his terminal illness, and takes us on a journey that is somehow both deeply tragic, and, yet, joyously light.
The film opens at Jesse’s miserable workplace, a car lot, as he watches his co worker and love interest, Anne, proudly exit after she quits her job to travel to Paris. Played by the engagingly talented and strikingly beautiful Tammy-Anne Fortuin, Anne tries to convince Jesse to quit and come along. “We’re about to hit our 30s,” she argues. “If not now, when?” Bound by subtle and relatable hints of fear, Jesse obediently returns to work, only to lose consciousness in the breakroom shortly thereafter.
With exceptional attention to detail, the film takes us down the fluorescent hallways of the hospital and into a small office where Jesse is faced with his diagnosis for the first time. It is in this scene where any hope on Jesse’s face is shattered. Actor Aleksander Ristic brings Jesse to life, really, during his confrontation with death, making the scene both too long, and not long enough.
Jesse is carted off to a shared room where he meets his roommate, George, played by actor John Colton (The Young and the Restless, Days of our Lives, Tosh.0) An older man with a heart condition, George convinces an emotional and angry Jesse to live it up a little, and together, with the help of a bottle of booze hidden in a cut-out bible, they share moments of true happiness and an unlikely friendship on the roof of the hospital. This is where the cinematography of the film really shines, with everything in stillness, and faces hiding in just the right amount of shadow.
The next morning, when Jesse’s boss calls, he does what he’s always wanted to do: he quits over the phone. Jesse and George celebrate in a moment of real and genuine surprise and limitlessness when a nurse walks in, bringing the gravity of the situation back to earth. Rozhkov does an outstanding job bringing emotions up and down, without bruising the viewer. His sense of timing, and his ability to mix the perfect cocktail of comedy and depth, is simply not teachable.
Since Dying to Live is full of little twists and turns that bring what could be cliche into a category original and creative, we learn next that, during a medical scan, George has taken Jesse’s phone and text messaged Anne, saying he’d be over later that night. Unable to simply stroll out of the hospital on their own, George and Jesse make a casual exit dressed as doctors. They are chased out by an angry nurse when George clutches his chest and falls to the ground. Jesse speeds off to meet Anne in George’s old red Mustang, and as soon as the screeching tires are out of sight, George opens his eyes, smiles, and asks if Jesse got away. George’s laughter takes the viewer through the credits.
The use of music throughout the film is chill-worthy, and producer Jainardhan Sathyan, along with Radhika Womack, do a noteworthy job ensuring the film stands as one cohesive project. Every setting is perfectly staged, every word is ideally written and delivered, and the overall concept is clear and powerful. The story, told with wit and grace, is an important one, and Sathyan makes sure it is told in the best way possible. The viewer is left with room to write the rest of the story, so to speak, all while feeling entirely satisfied with the story as told.
Such a topic of life and death can be hard to tackle, but Dying to Live is truly a gift to viewers in that every bit delivers compassion, depth, and humor with every scene, and leaves audiences feeling inspired.