Leonard is a devoted husband to his wife Elsie, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Though both are elderly, they live together in their family home, awaiting the arrival of the rest of their family for dinner. But Leonard himself has a fall, and he soon realizes the limits of their situation and his ability to remain his wife’s caretaker.
Writer-director Eric Shahinian, along with co-writer Maya Huang, is a portrait of devotion, marriage and the devastating realities of a disease that has striken an estimated 5.7 million Americans in 2018, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The story’s scope is pared down, taking place in one setting and a limited timeframe. But it captures a key turning point for one husband, who must rethink what it means to stay with someone “in sickness and in health.”
The construction of the narrative is solid, with each beat building on each other and raising both character development and dramatic tension. The camerawork is warm in tone, capturing the sense of domesticity and home that Leonard and Elsie live and want to stay together within.
But ultimately the strength of the short rests of its intimate, warmly human performances, particularly by Chiz Schultz and Eileen Miller, who play the couple at the film’s center. Through the acting, they capture the dance of love, frustration and ultimately fear that arises when Leonard discovers he may not able to be there all the time, in the way that Elsie needs.
“Head Above Water” is a quietly heartbreaking film that turns its lens on the toll that caretaking can have upon those who devote their time and lives to caring for those with Alzheimer’s, which can be frustrating and anxious. Beautifully made and ultimately moving, the film ultimately honors the everyday heroism of caretakers, even as it illustrates one man’s realization of its limits.