Austin Film Festival 2015: “Until 20”

maxresdefaultIn 2006, when a talented junior tennis player named James Ragan was 13, the Corpus Christi native was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He beat it. A few years later, it came back with a vengeance, five tumors in his chest.  He continued to fight it. He died Feb. 17, 2014. The Rice junior was 20 years old.

In those seven years, as Gerlandine Moriba-Meadows and Jamila Paksima’s documentary “Until 20” demonstrates, Regan lived a legitimately extraordinary life. He put together a foundation, Triumph Over Kids Cancer, that his sister till runs today. He inspired his doctors, nurses and peers. And, oh yeah, he essentially walked on to the Rice golf team after taking up the sport in his late teens after having to give up tennis. (Not only, as the documentary notes, did he shoot a 95 his very first time playing, he once played in a tournament while wearing a  portable chemo pack, which is one of the most insanely tough things I have ever heard.)

So, this is the the story of an activist and athlete, of a brother and a son. Diagnosed during a tennis tournament in Europe, he eventually had to drop the sport, only to pick up golf. This proved its own kind of inspiration. As he notes, “I guess it was Walter Hagan who once said that you can hit 3 bad shots and one good shot and still make par.  I think that’s a little bit how my life goes. It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just got to fight hard and find a way to get it done.”

Even more impressive, Ragan became a vigorous anti-cancer activist: “I’m working so my disease stops with me,” he says, which is one of the best summaries of such activism you are likely to encounter.

At every turn, Ragan seemed like a guy who was going to make the most of his time left, which he did extraordinarily well. But everyone knows it is borrowed time, and the film’s darkest moment comes when Ragan decides not to continue treatment when faces with about six decent months left. It is difficult to see Ragan’s skin become mottled and his voice rougher.

“The closer you get to death, the more you want to live,” Ragan says. He deserved more life, both for him and for us.

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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