AFF Review: I'll Be There

Austin-made cancer dramedy casts a little MJ glitter over the pain

Jasmine Batchelor as Grace in I'll Be There

"Every time I see your giant balls a piece of my soul dies," Grace (Jasmine Batchelor) groans, rolling her eyes at her bedbound brother, AJ (Ryan Cooper).

This is the comedy of self-protection, as Grace hands her brother (technically, adopted step-brother) a bag of ice to reduce the swelling that's a side effect of his recent cancer surgery. There was only a 5% chance of this happening after the surgeons removed his prostate, he grumbles, but then percentages loom over I'll Be There: swollen testicles, remission rates, the chances he'll ever have an erection again. They're not the only specter over their visit to the hospital: lying in the county morgue next door is the recently-deceased Michael Jackson, who may or may not be appearing to the sleep-deprived Grace in the form of a janitor (Maynard Bagang).

I'll Be There's title shows the importance of the King of Pop to the story (as does the original name, You Are Not Alone), but that celebrity twist and the hint of a supernatural component are just a side note in the real story, which is one of siblings in a time of sickness. Grace and AJ are part of a complicated blended family, and as the only born child of their parents (Victoria Kelleher and Dorien Wilson), there was always bubbling resentment towards Grace from all of her siblings: all except AJ, and their childhood bond is shown in flashbacks that somehow always revolve around MJ.

But don't go in expecting some kind of jukebox musical, or wall-to-wall Jackson (not least because that would probably be beyond the finances of this microbudget indie). Director and UT lecturer Andrew Shea (Portrait of Wally) keeps the Thriller star at arm's length, seen in news clips, talked about on the radio, and most importantly as a shared memory, a touchstone for the family and the audience.

Filmed in Austin last year, with Ascension Clinical Education Center on Red River filling in for the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center (read more about that in our set visit report), and with a script by Shea's UT colleague, Cindy McCreery, based on her own brother's cancer diagnosis, I'll Be There is really about the complexities of being siblings, how childish conflicts can shape grownup relationships, and, most especially, how sickness can help recontextualize and even replenish those bonds.

There's an earnestness to the script, reflecting the reality of complications and late night conversations, passing the time and passing gas – literally and metaphorically dealing with someone else's crap. It's all given an extra credibility by the light-hearted banter between Batchelor and Cooper who, even though Grace and AJ are not related by blood, make them brother and sister in the most meaningful way. McCreery's script may be set against a backdrop of one of pop culture's most memorable moments, but its tender examination of what it means to be family has a definite timelessness to it.

I'll Be There

World Premiere
Wed., Nov. 1, 9:15pm, Galaxy Theatre

Austin Film Festival runs Oct. 26-Nov. 3. Badges available now at
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Austin Film Festival, AFF 2023, Austin Film Festival 2023, AFF, I'll Be There, Cindy McCreery, Andrew Shea, Michael Jackson, Jasmine Batchelor, Ryan Cooper

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