Intent on having a second child but too old to successfully carry a baby to full term, writer/director Nicole Conn (Claire of the Moon) and lesbian partner Gwen Baba chose to use a surrogate to have what would turn out to be their son Nicholas. Much to their chagrin, however, the couple discovered mid-pregnancy that their birthing proxy had only one kidney and a history of preeclampsia, factors that would eventually contribute to Nicholas being born 100 days prematurely at a shocking weight of less than one pound—in essence, a fetus ill-equipped for life outside the womb.
little man, Conn’s anguishing documentary about Nicholas’s birth and subsequent struggle to survive, tells a tale rife with implications about abortion and the consequences of modern medical technological progress, as Conn’s against-everyone’s-advice choice to not terminate Nicholas not only severely strains her relationship with Gwen (who rightly worries about the loss of her happy life and future should Nicholas be born) and their young daughter Gabrielle but also calls into doubt the humanness of maintaining a fragile life that may be defined solely by pain and hopelessness.
Naturally (and somewhat unfairly) skewed in Conn’s favor due to her position as the doc’s director—the filmmaker depicts herself as Nicholas’s noble champion and Gwen as the more cynical, selfish party—little man takes a raw approach to its material, its employment of lyrically mournful music and manipulative slow-motion unable to diminish the gut-wrenching footage of Nicholas desperately attempting to stay alive with the help of IV tubes and monitor machinery during his 158-day stay in the Neonatal Infant Care Unit. Conn’s film is incapable of positing easy, comforting answers to the contentious questions it raises—namely, is aborting Nicholas an “act of arbitrary whim based on the fear of hard work and perpetual challenge,” as Conn argues early on, or a humane decision to avoid a life of “manufactured disability,” as she later wonders.
Yet amid the turmoil generated by Nicholas’s predicament arises a stirring portrait of maternal devotion and perseverance, with Conn’s maniacal obsession with Nicholas proving to be both his only hope (along with the saintly nurses who tend to him), as well as a reckless and dangerous force that threatens to destroy everyone and everything else Conn holds dear. Disabled physically and (apparently) mentally, Nicholas teeters between being the couple’s salvation and ruin, and Conn’s self-aware narration (bordering on the precious and clichéd) candidly confronts the mother/director’s growing reservations about the path she’s set forth for herself, her loved ones, and her troubled newborn boy. With literally no applicable medical statistics to fall back upon, Nicholas’s case becomes an “uncontrolled experiment,” and as he learns to breathe without a respirator, eat on his own, and permanently vacate his hospital environs, the film concerns itself less with choosing sides in the cost-benefit arguments surrounding life support procedures and pregnancy termination as it does with the indefatigability of the human spirit.
little man glaringly, and detrimentally, lacks a more forthright confrontation of Conn’s surprising (and at times narcissistic and exploitative) decision to cinematically document her son’s intensely personal plight. Yet in its recognition of the inherent fallibility of such monumental life-and-death choices—as well as via the harrowing sight of the miniscule Nicholas doggedly overcoming a series of seemingly insurmountable hardships—the film also imparts a heartbreaking (and, given Nicholas’s continuing survival, optimistic) sense of life’s imperfectness.