If feminism these days is all about sexiness as power -- vanquishing foes with a kiss -- then cancer might be the modern girl's ultimate challenge. Who better to conquer a dread disease than a hot chick with an attitude?
That's who Kris Carr purports to be in "Crazy Sexy Cancer," an engaging documentary that airs tonight at 9 on TLC. She's a New York actress and photographer who got her diagnosis at age 31: a rare form of cancer that left dozens of tumors in her liver and lungs. Within weeks, she started filming her search for a treatment, mugging for the camera to defang her dread disease.
This is ground that has been treaded before, most notably in "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy," a memoir-turned-movie that aired on Lifetime last October. Compared to some other survival stories, "Crazy Sexy Cancer" has the dramatic advantage of feeling unfinished. This isn't a triumphant tale of staring down death or enduring chemotherapy; Carr's cancer, though incurable, never reaches that critical stage. While her tumors could spread at any moment, they stay menacingly still over the course of the film, like vultures that haven't decided to swoop. Cancer isn't a sickness so much as a sense of doom.
"Crazy Sexy Cancer," then, is a study of what a cancer diagnosis can do to a freewheeling life: the way the search for a cure can crowd out nearly every other thought, the way cancer can redirect a life or a career. Every few months, Carr has to endure the nerve-wracking ritual of the CAT scan and the oncology visit. (The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute plays a prominent role in her film, as does the drive from New York to Boston.) But cancer also gives her a purpose, a message to spread: Cancer girls are cool.
Carr is a bright screen presence and a natural ham, and her first instinct is to slather her film with sarcasm. She mocks the process of finding a doctor, pokes fun at an alternative medicine convention, demonstrates the Herculean task of preparing a macrobiotic diet. She wisecracks her way through treatments and dances luminously. It's only midway through the film that the veneer begins to crack, and it's almost a relief when she finally breaks down.
It's also midway through that Carr's life takes a sweetly positive turn, as the guy she brought on to help edit her film becomes a love interest, then her husband. She also makes friends with a quartet of women who are battling cancer with similar levels of aplomb and success. This is a largely a superachieving set: Oni Faida Lampley is an award-winning playwright; Erin Zammett Ruddy is a Glamour editor who has written a sassy life-with-cancer memoir of her own. Ruddy's sister Melissa Gonzalez, an accountant, inspires the most pathos as she leaves behind her toddler son to get a curative stem cell transplant.
Next to Carr, though, the most compelling cancer girl is Jackie Farry, a rock tour manager with multicolored wigs who hosted an MTV show in the late 1990s. Diagnosed with multiple myeloma, she battles her disease -- and raises money to pay her bills -- with a rocker's sensibility. The slogan for her anti-cancer benefit concert is unprintable, but the attitude is brilliant.
And more than anyone else in the film, Farry gives into moments of darkness in ways that feel jarringly honest. She is so naturally cool that she isn't afraid to look afraid, and when she goes into remission she declines to feel relief. She's too aware of life, and life with cancer, to accept a happy ending.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.