Note: After reading his review of “I’ll Push You,” the author invites you to learn more about Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing, a new book that compares the writings of C. S. Lewis with the music of U2 in a life-changing journey through grief, joy, and longing for God. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
The new documentary I’ll Push You, follows two best friends, Patrick and Justin, who decide to travel 500 miles of El Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrim walking path in Spain, but with a significant and emotional twist to the story: Justin is wheelchair-bound because of a severe disease. The disease is called Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy. It causes the immune system to accidentally attack the nerves in the body until the person is no longer able to walk or do basic things such as brush their teeth or feed themselves or go to the bathroom.
Patrick is going to push Justin.
With the help of others–and this idea of learning to accept help and be dependent on others becomes a huge theme in the narrative of their journey–Patrick and Justin attempt to do something astonishing. It’s more than just a guy pushing his friend in a rugged wheelchair equipped with offload wheels. It also means finding towns, hotels for them to stay in every night, then taking care of Justin along the way with the level of consistent, quality care that a nurse would usually have to provide.
It’s extremely intense. Not just for Patrick or others helping Justin traverse the pilgrim road, but it’s intense for Justin too on a deeply emotional level as he accepts the fact that he’s totally reliant on these people to make it to the end of the pilgrim journey.
A Beautifully Made, Powerfully Intimate Documentary
This documentary is so immersive with its shots of the places they go that it feels as if you’re there. It feels like you’re going on a trip too. It’s detail-oriented. It doesn’t just jump right onto the road in Spain. First you see them in all the airports and points of transit, and it moves quickly enough through it that it’s not tedious but you really feel what it was like to fly with them. (And there are some beautiful airports, I should add.)
It takes them 36 hours of travel time just to get to Europe. No sleep. Lots of problems, like elevators or other spaces where the wheelchair doesn’t fit.
The shots of the French and Spanish countryside are just stunning. That alone is worth the time to watch this documentary. We see the old rocky road of the pilgrim trail wind through every type of landscape imaginable (almost). We see them moving through waist-high grassy fields dotted with vivid red wildflowers as sun warms the sky and earth and a classical nylon guitar fingerpicks Spanish melodies. Though it’s not all lovely and ideal. At times they face impossibly rocky, steep slopes or muddy, impassable train (for a wheelchair) and Patrick and his volunteers who have come along–like the faithful Ted who comes to help for the first two weeks of the journey–must carry Justin by hand in a harness over the terrain.
The human interest and emotional depth is just as stunning to watch as the fields of wildflowers and mountainous slopes covered by curling, mysterious fog.
With an excellent narrative pace, we see flashbacks to their childhood with interviews with family members. We really get to know Patrick and Justin and feel on a personal level how meaningful this pilgrim journey is for them.
And there are surprises along the way.
Justin wasn’t always in wheelchair, for example. We see pictures of his life with normal body function living a normal life. The symptoms started as an adult. He started to have weaknesses, and it declined until he couldn’t do basics.
We see it from his wife’s perspective. On their first date, Justin told her about his condition, which had begun to appear. She loved him and committed herself to him anyways. When the disease intensified, she found herself being a nurse during the day and at home a mother with a newborn and a wife to a man who needed the intensive care of a nurse.
A sudden switch to an interview with Justin: he opens up his heart and admits that during the darkest times, such as when his family suddenly had to care for him, he was tempted to consider suicide as a solution, to end his struggle and also to make life easier for his family. He would have a reoccurring dream, falling through complete blackness, with a young version of himself staring in horror at his older version falling into the blackhole. “But life is too short to go down that deep dark hole,” Justin concluded. He would not give up. He would try to see the light where the darkness is such as the joy of his children. [Cuts to a shot of his daughter in a beam of sunlight smiling. Then to another heartwarming scene of the whole family waking up and getting out of bed and being there for each other. The togetherness and commitment between all of them just melts the heart.]
These heartrending but also inspiring interviews are sprinkled throughout the pilgrim trail journey.
And what a journey it is. Among other things, they meet a blind woman walking the road with her Irish sisters, they deal with broken wheelchair wheels, they get new friends and helpers–Christie and John, for example, who help after Ted leaves–and Justin, through it all, is overwhelmed by their love for him and the amazing joy of the journey.
But it’s also hard.
He says: “I have to continually let go of feeling like a burden, continually trust and let them find their joy in it because they love it. [Begins to choke up and week on-camers.] And I love them for it. It’s freaking amazing. It’s really hard to let someone do that for you. It’s hard, it’s hard. It’s hard to let that go.”
Justin wasn’t the only one who had to let go and be dependent on others and feel at peace with it. Patrick did too. He wants to be the main pusher and helper for Justin every step of the way. But near the last leg as they face intense weariness, Patrick is feeling the exhaustion wear him down.
But then strangers help. Pilgrims on the trail volunteer out of nowhere.
I won’t give any more spoilers away, but the final third of the documentary just moved me to tears as both Patrick and Justin learn to be dependent on others. And I won’t say what happens, but the final scene just about had me bawling. I’m getting emotional just remembering it.
It’s an extraordinary film.
Justin’s line near the end sums it up well: “When you deny the opportunity of someone to help you, you deny them that joy in life–they had such joy in helping me.”
And the film has these wonderful closing lines:
Pilgrim, whose voice is calling you?
What hidden force leads you on?
The film shows Patrick and Justin praying together often. It’s not a faith-based film and it doesn’t get into any religious themes at all, but there is an undercurrent of love and Heaven-born joy and grace that pervades every moment on the pilgrim road. It’s unspoken, but it’s powerful, very present in their faces and tears, and it’s inspiring.
The voice of agape love is calling loud and clear in every scene of this documentary.
Do yourself a favor and go see I’ll Push You. It’s a life-changing journey and an unforgettable film experience.