Documentarian Alan Berliner is frequently the star of his movies, but his focus extends beyond his neuroses. Rather than the star of the show, he’s a vessel for bigger ideas and evades the perils of self-indulgence that could result from putting himself in front of the camera.
That tricky balance is on display better than ever in the stirring FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED, which deepens an oeuvre that has already dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships (NOBODY’S BUSINESS) and insomnia (WIDE AWAKE) by exploring his fears of senility to devastating effect. Using a powerful focal point to manifest the movie’s central concerns, Berliner makes his interest in the topic relevant to everyone.
His case study is Edwin Honig, the first cousin of Berliner’s mother, a bond that gives the movie its title. But there’s more about Honig — once a world-class poet and founder of Brown University’s creative writing program — that has been removed beyond his relationship to the filmmaker. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease before the movie begins, Honig has lost grasp of his identity or any firm understanding of his relationships to those around him. Still haunted from his own father’s death from the disease, Berliner sets out to understand the nature of Honig’s increasing frailty by working to unlock the older man’s dwindling memories.
– Eric Kohn, IndieWIRE