‘The Ataxian’: Film Review

Zack Bennett and Kevin Schlanser’s documentary ‘The Ataxian’ profiles a young man suffering from the progressive neuromuscular disease Friedreich’s ataxia.

If you’ve never heard of the progressive neuromuscular disease Friedreich’s ataxia, you’re exactly the target demographic for Zack Bennett and Kevin Schlanser’s documentary. Depicting the efforts of a sufferer to participate in a grueling cross-country bike ride in order to raise awareness of the condition The Ataxian pursues the same goal in moving fashion.

The film centers on Kyle Bryant, who was diagnosed with the disease — which usually afflicts children and almost always proves fatal — when he was 17 years old. As he increasingly lost the ability to play sports and even walk, Kyle began to test himself physically by riding long distances in a three-wheeled, recumbent bicycle known as a “trike.”

The Bottom Line

This inspiring true-life tale well fulfills its goal of spreading awareness about the insidious, little-known disease.

When he is finally relegated to using a wheelchair, Kyle, expressing a desire to “do something crazy,” enlists three of his friends, including Sean, a fellow Friedreich’s ataxia sufferer, to join him in taking part in the annual “Race Across America.” Known as “the toughest bike race in the world,” the event takes place over nine days and spans a 3,000-mile route from Oceanside, Calif. to Annapolis, Md.  

The film alternates between chronicling the four men’s participation in the grueling race — made even tougher for Kyle and Sean because of their disease’s energy-sapping aspects — and interviews with various figures commenting about the condition. The subjects include doctors, researchers and several sufferers of the disease and their family members, including one father who established a nonprofit advocacy foundation after his little boy was diagnosed.

On a purely cinematic level, none of this is particularly original, with the racing footage similar to countless other sports-themed documentaries. This film is most effective in the interview segments, especially those featuring the charismatic Kyle, often seen in tight close-ups while emotionally describing his travails and determination to overcome them.  

Benefiting from an impressive soundtrack featuring contributions from the likes of Sigur Ros, Bon Iver and other hip indie bands, The Ataxian well fulfills its mission of calling attention to the little-known, insidious disease.

Distributor: Redwood Creek Entertainment
Directors: Zack Bennett, Kevin Schlanser
Producers: Zack Bennett, Kevin Schlanser, Nathan Adams
Executive producer: Thomas Hamilton
Director of photography: Kevin Schlanser
Editors: Zack Bennett, Kevin Schlanser, Sarah Dewitt
Composer: Brandon Roberts
Not rated, 74 minutes