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A moving but manipulative '39 Pounds'

Shortly after Ami Ankilewitz was born in 1970, a Texas doctor diagnosed him with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and gave him six years to live. The new documentary ''39 Pounds of Love" opens with Ami's 34th birthday party. The lesson? Always get a second opinion.

Stirring, sobering, and manipulative enough to be slightly suspect, ''39 Pounds" lets us get used to Ami and then sends him out on the road. The first part takes a bit of doing: The ravages of Ami's disease have left him a wheelchair-bound living skeleton -- the title refers to his weight -- who can move only one finger of one hand. He speaks in a slur through a microphone-headset he has nicknamed Madonna and looks out at the world through large, sardonic eyes. He has a Harley tattoo and likes whiskey; with that one finger, he has made a career in computer animation, tapping out short movies about a goofy-looking bird who flies free.

Ami, who was born in the United States but grew up in Israel, is surrounded by a loving family and a raffish group of buddies, and we quickly come to see him through their eyes, smiling derisively when strangers flinch as Ami rolls by. Harder to witness is his relationship with his caretaker, a beautiful and vibrant 21-year-old Romanian woman named Christina. She bathes Ami and feeds him and hits the bars with him, and as far as he's concerned, she's his girlfriend. And as much as she might wish otherwise, he's just her friend.

Shortly after ''39 Pounds of Love" begins, Ami asks Christina to move out -- clearly the hardest emotional task of his life -- and starts planning a trip to the United States. An outfitted RV is rented, his friends and a filmmaking crew come along. The ultimate goal is San Antonio, where Ami hopes to confront the doctor who gave him that long-ago death sentence. Why? Partly to show him the error of assigning term-limits to human life, but a sharper truth is hinted at when Ami looks at Christina's empty room and his warm noodge of a mother and mutters, ''I need to get the hell out of here."

The film insists on closure, though, and stays on-message in ways that don't always jibe with what we're seeing. The trip across the Western United States turns into a gratifying adventure, not least in the ways Ami is welcomed and befriended by truckers, campers, and an entire fluid community of roadside Americans. Ami keeps pushing himself to the edge of his abilities; when his best friend Asaf warns him that a ride on a motorcycle would be dangerous, he snaps back, ''Yeah? So? Crossing the street is dangerous." When Ami passes out during a visit to the Grand Canyon, you understand his friends' concern.

Unfortunately, director Dani Menkin never resolves the conceptual tension. A visit to Ami's estranged brother in Dallas is presented as a surprise drop-in but feels thoroughly staged; by contrast, the mortified expression on Ami's face when his mother unexpectedly turns up looks all too real. Locating the doctor is a similarly muddled exercise; the crew arrives in San Antonio to find he has retired to Miami, but why couldn't they have done their research before leaving Israel?

You wind up with the overwhelming sense of a complicated, interesting man being exploited by people who love him dearly and who sometimes see their own best intentions rather than the object of those intentions. ''39 Pounds of Love" is a heartwarmer that looks away from darker, deeper, and more troubling matters.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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