A curmudgeonly older man, Sol, goes to the hospital with his partner Ben to record a voice bank of common word and phrases.
He’s been diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Though healthy and functioning, Sol’s muscles will eventually weaken, and he will lose the ability to fully physically function and speak.
At the hospital, though, they come face to face with the future reality that Sol faces, especially when he reads phrases such as “Change my underwear” and “I have an itch.” Sol realizes he’ll soon be unable to take care of himself in the most basic of ways, and also unable to communicate these basic needs to a caretaker without help or intervention.
However, the act of recording Sol’s voice offers him an opportunity to reflect on himself, his life and his relationships. As he begins to record jokes, requests and quips, a portrait emerges of a life lived fully and beautifully, even as it faces its final curve down the road. Finally, he embraces the opportunity to record his thoughts for posterity, and talks from the heart about his profound gratitude for Ben and their time together.
Writer-director Tyler Rabinowitz, along with co-writer Jack Healy, have created a beautifully written and acted short drama that tackles profound themes of mortality, connection, love and how we endow our lives with worth and meaning. It takes one relatively “small” event in someone’s life and unpacks it for its fullest import, as it becomes a turning point in Sol’s acceptance of this latest curveball in life — and a realization of his own deep connection to the larger universe.
A film like this relies on an understated, naturalistic approach to avoid melodrama, eschewing intricate camerawork and glossy cinematography for a more measured, grounded but no less effective approach. But the seemingly modest visual approach — with the exception of its stylized fantasy sequences — allows the superb writing and acting to come to the forefront.
Sol and Ben are a pair who have clearly known each other for a long time, with the give-and-take that exist between two people who have experienced much together and know one another extremely well feels very natural and specific. They rib one another often, with equal parts affection, sarcasm and irritation.
Actor Arnie Burton plays Sol with sensitivity and a great feel for how a person is weighted down with a serious illness. He leads with a kind of gruffness that feels both intrinsic to his character but also as a defense in the situation he’s dealing with. Facing the inevitable decline and early mortality associated with ALS, he is angry at the future lack of autonomy and dignity of it all and unwilling to move forward with the voice bank.
But as the film proceeds, he also unpeels the layers of tremendous sadness and vulnerability at the core of the situation, and eventually he gives voice to the deep feelings that facing his mortality has opened up within him, leading to the film’s poetic, dreamy final sequence, a well-earned and beautifully rendered flight of fantasy that offers a sense of awe at the immensity of life itself.
“How I Got to the Moon by Subway” is ultimately a love letter to the deep bonds that we make with another and the beautiful stream of memories, sensations, thoughts, dreams and longings that make up one’s experience of life. But it’s not just the having of those things that matter — the film is also a evocative, moving testament to giving voice, articulation and gratitude to the great universes we carry within ourselves, and sharing it with other. As the film itself states wonderfully, “You find who you are and who you love are one and the same.”