What if you could find out what genetic disorders you may pass on to your children? What if you could find out what disorders your partner might pass on to your children? What if you could select a mate based on a genetic map and the risk of your child having a genetic disorder? I had a chance to see The Perfect 46 at the inaugural Other Worlds Austin film festival, and ask myself these very questions.
The film takes place in the near future, where 38 states have passed legislation requiring their citizens to have their genomes mapped. Geneticist Jesse Darden (Whit Hertford) comes up with an internet start up that may revolutionize the way that the world looks at disease control, cures, vaccines and other preventative health care. Darden creates a company and a web service, theperfect46.com that will analyze the genome of two prospective partners and give them the possible results of their coupling. Partners then know if their potential child is likely to develop disorders such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. Rather than try to find a cure for these diseases, Darden hopes that in the future these diseases will cease to exist as a result of selective breeding. However noble the intention, there is an ethical quandary with this type of technology, and in turn, a dark side to how it could be used.
The Perfect 46 explores a technology that isn't so much science fiction as it is just not available to the public as of yet. The human genome has been mapped. We as a species now know at least some of the chromosomes and abnormalities within those chromosomes that cause certain disorders and defects; we just haven't developed that knowledge into a widespread, practical application quite yet. This is one of the things that makes The Perfect 46 so compelling. It isn't a story about genetic manipulation to create a race of perfect people. It isn't about a dystopian government forcing sterilization of individuals that are carriers of these genetic disorders. The people that choose to use the service aren't able to select their child's hair color or intelligence or athletic ability. It's about knowing what you may carry in your genetic makeup and taking every precaution to not pass anything harmful to your potential offspring. This is a conversation that we as humans will be having in the very, very near future.
The Perfect 46 is laid out as a simple conversation about a topic that really has no right answer. One the one hand you have the ambitious Darden, who really and truly wants only to better the human race, and on the other, you have the cautious detractors, questioning his intention and eventually bringing up the sinister history of eugenics.
Writer/Director Brett Ryan Bonowicz switches between three threads to tell us Darden's story. At the outset of the film, Darden's home is broken into by two masked intruders demanding he tell them about his safe. Tied to a chair, Darden begins a long conversation with one of the intruders. The other finds an old VHS tape hidden behind the television while searching for the safe and pops it in the player, showing us footage from a documentary special about the rise and eventual fall of Darden's company. Complementing the documentary footage are flashbacks into Darden's personal life. The documentary allows us to see how other people and the public see Darden, and the flashbacks give us personal context and insight into the character, again creating balance between the two sides of the argument. The documentary and the flashbacks show us what led to the present, slowly revealing why Darden finds himself tied to a chair by unknown intruders. While it may seem difficult to follow, Bonowicz ties all three of these threads together seamlessly, never bouncing from one to another jarringly. It is always clear what we are being shown.
The film is about the question of can vs. should, but it is more so about Darden's arrogance and unwillingness to understand how or why an individual would not want to know if they and their potential partner may pass on a serious genetic disorder. Hertford plays Jesse Darden fantastically, giving an underlying nuance of genuine unlikeability to the character. Darden is shown at the beginning of the film to have OCD, flicking a light switch off and on again a certain number of times, but where that OCD doesn't necessarily show up related to the plot, it gives another facet to the character. Jesse Darden is a short, odd-looking, obsessive compulsive who wants to better the human race at the genetic level, and is incapable of accepting that some people would want to leave well enough alone.
The film offers no answer, gives us no correct side of the argument. But through Darden's story we see the problems with zeal and the unwillingness to entertain the opinion of others. We also see what can happen when something goes wrong with a technology that has such an incredible impact for those that use it. No matter how just the intention, one must consider the risks involved and be willing to accept responsibility for whatever may come.