In 2006, Jason DaSilva filmed a vacation on the beach with his family when, seemingly without reason, he fell down and couldn't muster the strength to stand back up. This moment is caught on camera, as is every important moment of his life in the years since being diagnosed with primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, in which all of his neurological functioning, including mobility and vision, grow steadily worse with no chance of remission.
Sounds like a bummer, right? Shockingly, wonderfully, When I Walk is not a bummer. Jason approaches his condition with fierce optimism and a superhuman sense of humor. We can see where he gets it - early in the film, soon after being diagnosed, we witness a conversation with his tiny dynamo of a mother, "Mrs. Positivity." She reminds him that in many countries, children have to live in shacks, surrounded by rivers of garbage. Jason looks at the camera and laughs, shaking his head, as his mother gently chides him for being a "whiny, coddled North American kid."
Jason, in addition to being an established filmmaker (his short Olivia's Puzzle also premiered at Sundance in 2002), is an artist, and we see some of his artwork, along with a few animated sequences in the film. We see photos and videos of his childhood as he embarks on artistic enterprises, always running, always grinning, always creating something. As his condition worsens and he finds it more difficult to get around, he begins to despair of running out of time to live the full life he deserves. "I may be walking slower, but inside I'm racing."
He travels to India, from where his family hails, to make a short film, but his worsening eyesight causes him to abandon the project. He stays and turns to yoga, meditation, herbal remedies. He travels to France and turns to prayer. He reads about an experimental procedure to expand his veins and alleviate the effects of PPMS, and he makes an appointment the next day. Nothing helps, nothing works.
In 2008 he meets Alice Cook, the daughter of a woman with multiple sclerosis, at an MS support group. They fall in love. They scoot around the Guggenheim; they travel to Hawaii together. They organize a database for chronicling all of the establishments with limited mobility access in Brooklyn. Alice helps Jason eat, urinate, get dressed - she helps him finish this film. What if, in fifteen years, he can't speak, can't even see her? "Well, at least you'll have me for fifteen years."
When I Walk had every opportunity to be a depressing exercise in self-indulgence. But Jason isn't self-indulgent, and he's rarely depressed. Over the seven years since his diagnosis, he's had some incredibly vulnerable moments, and he doesn't shrink from showing the lowest points of his life. But this is a man who, without fail, laughs when he falls down, and When I Walk benefits from his courage, cheer and unflinching honesty.