The mission statement of the new Apple TV+ documentary "Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie" is declared in its opening minutes after Michael J. Fox rejects the "sad sack" version of his life story, which suggests he was an actor at the top of the world before being crushed by a debilitating disease. "Yeah," he says, "that's boring."
From director Davis Guggenheim, "Still" gives the beloved actor an opportunity to tell his story in his own words as he recalls the ups and downs of his career and opens up about his battle with Parkinson's disease. The film is as emotional as viewers would anticipate from the subject matter. According to critics, though, what's even more impressive is the documentary's innovative editing style, and Fox's signature charisma and wit in the face of illness make it an unexpectedly inspiring watch. After earning rave reviews out of Sundance and a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, don't be surprised to find "Still" on many year-end lists of 2023's best films.
"Still" is built around a series of conversations between Guggenheim and Fox, as well as voiceovers of the actor. He recounts the start of his career and his explosion in fame to his Parkinson's diagnosis, detailing his attempt to hide the disease from the public and, ultimately, his decision to go public with it. But no other subjects are interviewed in the documentary, allowing Fox to control his own narrative. By excising any other talking heads, Guggenheim has also "crafted the powerfully intimate sensation that Fox is confiding in us," RogerEbert.com's Christy Lemire noted.
Even more compelling is the director's choice to visualize Fox's stories using clips from his movies and shows. When Fox describes getting his role on "Family Ties," for example, the film shows a scene from "The Secret of My Success" where Fox's character pleads, "I want this job. I need it. I can do it." Later, as Fox opens up about battling alcoholism, Guggenheim compiles every clip he could find from Fox's movies where his character drinks and/or wakes up in a daze. Placing these scenes in a new context creates the illusion that we're viewing real moments from Fox's life, not scenes of him acting. The fascinating exercise is sure to be studied in editing classes. "Guggenheim does an astonishing job of finding clips from Fox's career to suit the story beats," Variety's Peter Debruge wrote, and interweaving the modern interviews with these clips "makes for a bold and bravely vulnerable form of nonfiction narrative," said The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan.
Guggenheim combines these old clips with reenactments of events from Fox's life. The director also draws on a massive collection of archival footage, including behind-the-scenes video, and these clips are edited into a series of energetic montages. One illustrates how Fox filmed "Back to the Future" and "Family Ties" simultaneously, and the mix of reenactments, interviews, and eerily relevant clips is so seamless, it's easy to forget we're not watching a scripted narrative feature. Another montage shows signs of Fox's Parkinson's disease in his performances before he revealed the diagnosis to the public. The filmmaking choices are "inspired and border on experimental," The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg explained, and Deadline's Pete Hammond dubbed the editing award-worthy. It all adds up to a movie that's visually dynamic and provides a value that viewers couldn't get from simply listening to an extended interview with Fox. "As rote as many celebrity navel-gazing documentaries have become, it's refreshing to see a film that can still find the strengths of the format," The A.V. Club's Leigh Monson pointed out.
When the film delves into Fox's Parkinson's battle, it doesn't hold back, and the interviews are "far less delicate than one might expect," The Wall Street Journal's John Anderson said. In one, Fox reflects on his mortality by stating that if he's alive in 20 years, he'll be cured or a "pickle." In another scene, he greets a fan on the street before falling to the ground, and when we see footage of his physical therapy sessions, he admits to being in "intense pain."
Despite all this, "the documentary is, perhaps improbably, not a downer in the least," but instead "a character study in which Fox reflects on his life with quick wit and self-deprecation," The New York Times' Ben Kenigsberg noted. Indeed, the actor speaks with "humor and nary a trace of self-pity," CNN's Brian Lowry observed, and Empire's John Nugent called it "amazing how funny he is, even when visibly in pain." After Fox describes falling into a piece of furniture and smashing his face, he jokes, "Gravity is real, even if you're only falling from my height." And in the scene where he falls after greeting a fan, he doesn't waste a moment before quipping, "You knocked me off my feet." The "effects of Parkinson's are visible but so is the jaunty, self-deprecating actor we've always known," The Associated Press' Jake Coyle said. When Fox is at home with his wife, Tracy Pollan, and their kids, the family always appears to be in good spirits, as in a scene where they playfully rib him for his texting etiquette. "His relationship with Pollan and their children seems to have finally granted him the stillness he never had," wrote Mark Kermode at The Guardian.
Ultimately, "Still" is not the "story of a wonderful actor felled by an illness," as Time's Stephanie Zacharek put it. It's the "story of a wonderful actor, period." It "accomplishes something amazing" by drawing "viewers into the painful reality of Fox's life with Parkinson's without turning him into an object of pity or martyrdom," NPR's Eric Deggans agreed. So as devastating as the documentary can be, it also serves as a reminder that the actor's story shouldn't be defined by his Parkinson's battle, nor should he be viewed mainly as a tragic figure.
"If you pity me, it's never gonna get to me," he says in the film. "I'm not pathetic. I got shit going on. I'm a tough son of a bitch."