4 OUT OF 4 STARS!   -- The Daily News
About a Boy - & 9/11
"Telling Nicholas," which has its premiere this weekend, explores the aftershocks of the World Trade Center tragedy by focusing literally and figuratively on a single photo and following that lead.
The 90-minute documentary, by James Ronald Whitney, is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's also a staggering piece of detective work, an impressive piece of social work, and a story so amazingly unpredictable and unabashedly human that it's all but guaranteed to move, surprise, gratify and linger with everyone who sees it.
In addition to its TV unveiling as a Mother's Day "America Undercover" installment, "Telling Nicholas" is one of several films about Sept. 11 that will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs today through Sunday. Its place on the program, though, is anything but parochial. To date, "Telling Nicholas" is the most emotional film, and the best, to emerge from the ashes of the terrorist tragedy - and that includes CBS' highly regarded "9/11," which aired in March.

Nicholas photo
Getting Personal: Nicholas Lanza, of 'Telling Nicholas'

Whitney, who lived just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, trained his camera on the towers shortly after the first plane hit. All the footage from the documentary showing the towers burning or collapsing was shot by Whitney himself, including the encroaching dust cloud that drove him from his home and immediate neighborhood.
For many filmmakers, that would be enough; for Whitney, it was only the starting point. The next day, as he looked for (and, unfortunately, found) familiar faces among the missing-persons flyers posted on the sealed-off area's perimeter, one photo in particular caught Whitney's eye. It was a picture of Staten Islander Michele Lanza, 36, and her 7-year-old son, Nicholas. The mother was missing, and her family in Tottenville was seeking information about her fate or whereabouts.

At that point, every photo on that wall, and on every other wall like it, had a story to tell. What Whitney did that was so rare, and so rewarding from a filmmaking sense, was to follow that photo, and that thread, wherever it went.

He ended up finding a little boy who had yet to be told about the disaster, and who would be sheltered from it for many days afterward. The title of the movie suggests its central story line, but this documentary contains much more.

Whitney is part archeologist, using everything he can unearth - family films and photos, answering-machine messages, postcards on an abandoned desk - to bring his subjects and their stories and emotions to life.

Some of the ironies and artifacts are uncanny, but what's most unbelievable is the intimacy of this real-time look at a grieving, coping, sometimes fractured family.
To detail what happens would be to rob this true-life tale, which no screenwriter could have written, of some of its potency. There's no overarching happy ending here, but there are plenty of scenes to be witnessed, and lessons learned about love, loss and resiliency.

"Telling Nicholas" is a documentary with a heart, and a heartbeat, that I doubt I'll ever forget.

DIRECTOR'S FILMS: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: New York, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Hollywood, Telling Nicholas, Just, Melvin, TheWorkingGirl.com
Find out more about James Ronald Whitney's Productions at the Fire Island Films website
: www.FIFproductions.com
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© 2003 James Ronald Whitney