“I don’t think you just are one, you definitely become one,” filmmaker and star Lori Benson says while kissing her daughter’s tiny hand a few seconds in to her autobiographical documentary “Dear Talula,” airing on Cinemax October 9th. Check out the trailer
It’s such a disarmingly honest moment, I forgot for that I was watching a documentary about breast cancer and not a feel good new-mommy story. With her scratchy voice and charismatic smile, Lori Benson is, in a word, watchable. As the story of her struggle with breast cancer unfolds, I find myself completely engrossed, not only because I’m a new mother myself, but because I feel I know her. Apparently I am not the only person to have this reaction to her work,
“People watch the movie and tell me what is so compelling about it is that I could be their friend, or their sister.”
Lori Benson could easily be your friend, or sister, or girlfriend, cousin, daughter, or any woman you love. In a movie full of courage, heart and humor, ultimately Lori Benson herself is it’s greatest asset. It is because we are intrigued by her that a movie about breast cancer rarely feels like a movie about breast cancer. Ultimately, it’s a story about perseverance and the effects of a life threatening disease on a family.
Lori’s stepsister and paternal grandmother were also victims of the disease. Sadly, they did not win their battles against it. In 1994, researchers discovered that women who carry mutations of BRCA1(Breast Cancer 1) or BRCA2 (Breast Cancer 2) are at higher risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer than women who do not have these genetic mutations. Because of her family history, Lori was not surprised that she had what they now refer to as the “breast cancer gene.” But she didn’t let it victimize her,
“I never suffered from the “why me?”s. I was not surprised by it. I was just defiant in my fight against it.”
Consequently, “Dear Talula” isn’t a weepy, movie of the week story. There are no scenes of Lori throwing up, or becoming rail thin and fragile. She also never lost her hair during her chemo,an aspect of the movie she feels contributes to its effectiveness,
“One of the reasons people who normally couldn’t watch a movie on this subject, you know, men, seem to be able to stick with it might be that they never see me lose my hair. I stay an attractive woman through the process, so it’s more accessible for them.”
And also, throughout the film, Lori exudes a grounded intelligence that belies the fact that it is happening to her. What you witness is a woman figuring out the best strategy for taking on the disease so she can be a loving and present mother for Talula, now five and a half. The footage feels completely sponetaneous, probably because, as Lori tells me,
“I never intended to make a documentary film, but after I got diagnosed, my husband, [Jonathan Stack, an award-winning documentary filmmaker himself], paid a camera man a few thousand dollars to follow me around …to document a journey. I was looking at a situation in the eye,”
But when the dust settled and she looked at the footage that had been shot, Lori knew she had to make a film. When she found tapes from before the diagnoses that were so relevant to her story, she also knew,” It was a film that was meant to be.”
But what is life about now, I ask her? Now that she is cancer free and the film is completed and moving audiences all over the country? Turns out she’s had an unexpected realization.
“There is a buzz and a euphoria in the thick of it, there are tons of friends around and family…but everyone goes back to their lives when you are out of crisis so there is a letdown, a postpartum, if you will. Any lasting personal growth has to be done. It doesn’t happen for you. And it’s disappointing that I still have issues.”
And Ms. Benson had a very full life before her diagnosis. Originally from New York, she lived in Los Angeles in the early 90’s where she worked in the entertainment business. Although materially satisfied in LA, she longed for the grittiness of New York so she moved back there. She then met and married the aforementioned Stack, with whom she had Talula. Before she had her daughter, she worked for Stack’s company, Gabriel Films.
Now she is busy working to create an Outreach Program using her film to help raise awareness about the importance of self-breast exams and early detection. Her biggest hope is that her daughter does not also have the breast cancer gene. Talula certainly seems to have inherited her mother’s creativity. Although she hasn’t picked up a camera yet, she loves to document her life with her Mom.
“…She loves to make books of her life, things she’s done, her first ski trip,’ or a day in the country’…she has a book of portraits she’s done of family and friends, and of course, she loves ‘dress up’ and being a princess (who doesn’t?).”
Lori doesn’t go to every screening of “Dear Talula” which has been touring the country as part of Luna Fest, a traveling film festival where 10% of the proceeds go to The Breast Cancer Fund. But she is thrilled that it is reaching so many people.
“I got calls from around the world thanking me for demystifying breast cancer,” she tells me.
Not only did the movie record a life changing experience for Lori’s, it has also clearly given her new direction. And she’s not fooling around, in one of our early e-mail exchanges I mentioned that my aunt died of breast cancer, she quickly wrote back,
“Sorry about your aunt. you must do your self breast exams, when I see you I am going to show you the latest most up to date method!”
In addition to refocusing her creative energy, a year after the movie finished after divorcing Stack, Lori met her current boyfriend and “fell madly in love.” Her new man originally came in to interview with her to be the sound designer for “Dear Talula.” But, Benson tells me, as soon as she met him the first thought she had was, “my new boyfriend is going to know I have cancer.” He got the job as sound editor and they have been together ever since. She tells me it’s important to her that other survivors know that they can still be considered sexy and desirable, even after a mastectomy.
“Tom appreciates what I’ve been through and how I’ve handled it. For him, it makes me someone really deep.”
Which is a good thing, particularly since Lori had a recurrence of the illness only a few months after meeting him. It was just a small tumor under her arm, but it needed to be treated. This time she would lose her hair. Rather than watch that happen slowly, the two decided to create a romantic ritual of cutting off her hair together. You can hear him talk about this special experience they shared at Lee Denim Day, click on “Watch Denim Day Videos” and watch “Who’s on Your Team.”
Unfortunately with breast cancer, there is no definitive happy ending. There is bi-annual monitoring, taking care of yourself, and luck. But certainly the impassioned commitment to going after what you want that comes from facing your mortality has been an invaluable by product of her illness.
Time is precious and Lori Benson knows it.
“I am not going to waste time not fulfilling my promises to myself,” she tells me.
And after all, what’s hotter than that?
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