A documentary on Huntington’s disease, a family torn apart and how a bike ride and one courageous Matt Austin brings them together.
The tagline, just like the film’s name, changed a few times over the course of the production. It began as “A ride with Matt” and about A young man with Huntington’s disease and a cycling trip with his uncle. Indeed, it wasn’t until the final moments of post-production that the film’s chief editor, Kyle Parker, and producer and director, Robert Rippberger, came up with the much improved “Breaking the cycle.” Why it is much improved is the topic of this article.
Yes, this is a story about a young man named Matt, who has Huntington’s disease. Yes, it’s about Matt’s ride across the East Coast, bonding for the first time with his uncle, Adam. So yes, this is a film about a ride with Matt. You’ll get that much from the opening credit sequence of beautiful stretches of road and countryside with four solitary riders passing through the frame in the distance. The introductory interviews then throw viewers into a pot of hard issues about a fatal disease and lost relationships, and it’s clear that this is about much more than a simple ride with Matt. But if you’re not careful, you’ll fall into the safe misconception that this is the core of the film, and that this is all the ride is about. Even this is just the easy stuff. After all, no journey would be worth watching if everything was figured out in the beginning, even if that figured-out-stuff was already important. That’s one thing the new title immediately accomplishes. It’s a reminder that the riders haven’t even begun the trip, and the cycle has yet to be broken.
Remember the name Matt Austin, though. Because no matter what the title of the movie, this is entirely about him. Matthew Austin was raised in Oakley, California and graduated from Deer Valley High School in 2008 where he played soccer, baseball, and basketball. At age 18, Matt joined the US Air Force. He spent three months in Keesler, Mississippi and another eight months in Witchitah Falls, Texas. He tested positive for Huntington’s disease two weeks before his 20th birthday, and eight months later he was medically discharged from the Air Force.
Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive degeneration and dementia. The disease is caused by a mutation on either of two copies of a gene called Huntington. Any child of a parent who has one affected copy of the gene has a 50% chance of inheriting the disease, and if a child does not get the gene from a parent, the disease cannot be passed on. Physical symptoms of Huntington’s can begin at any age, but they usually begin between years 35 and 44. Matt has the rare early-onset Huntington’s, likely related to the fact that Matt’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all inherited the disease. People who do have the disease usually die within 15 to 20 years of becoming symptomatic, more often from infection but also from suicide. Matt was diagnosed in 2010.
If it was going to be done right, everyone on the film had to know from the beginning that this was entirely about Matt, more so than about raising awareness about the disease, and certainly more so than about any bicycle ride. But of course, Matt Austin would never say so. To him the ride, the film, the 4th of July family reunion, fooling around with his cousin, every joke about his injuries and every one of his beautifully distinct laughs, every single moment is about his family. Matt Austin is strong, and he is the first to say so. Although no one would doubt it for a second. And it becomes clear a good ways into the movie that it’s Matt who has at some point taken charge of pushing the story forward. He isn’t the best cycler and he wants to do much more than he is able to, but he is the one to do the hardest task, and that is naming what the film is really about. Because what Matt really wants is always what is best for his family. Sitting in the van with his cousin, suffering from one of many setbacks on the ride, Matt seems to see before anyone what the goal of this trip really is: About family, about Huntington’s disease, of course, but also and more universally about the generations-long vicious cycle of pain not shared or listed to.
The filmmakers do a fantastic job of managing the voices of not only the riders but also of the four Austin siblings. Their stories of growing up in Palmyra, NY in a family with the disease is impressively woven into the cycling trip, and both stories develop together, as if with every mile that Matt rides closer to the family awaiting him in Tyngsboro, MA, the closer everyone gets to their real feelings and to each other. For the four siblings, Aaron, Amy, Annaliese and Adam, sharing these feelings seems to have been a long time coming, because growing up, silence was encouraged and strength was being able to cope on one’s own. It’s revealed at the end that never once did anyone in the family speak with each other about living with the disease as much as they have during the making of this movie. And what’s worse is that Matt’s generation is perilously close to joining the same cycle of silence. But you probably wouldn’t guess it at the beginning, as every one of them seems to be able to speak intelligently and openly in the one-on-one interviews. They share memories, stories of pain and stories of running away, survivor’s guilt, and guilt about all that was never shared so much with each other as it is now to the camera.
But who doesn’t understand exactly the same code of Strong and Silent. Everyone with a family knows of at least one topic that is just better off not mentioned, right? It’s just better to leave the water under the bridge and focus on the present and the future, right? Well, this movie gives an absolutely beautiful example of why that is not case. It’s not right, even if it is the most common and universal lie in the world. When it comes to family and to love, that water under the bridge is blood, and a running river of blood seems a lot more impossible to forget than a river of water. You can’t forget, and no one should be asked to try. What can be done is talking and understanding, not because it necessarily feels better to start talking about something painful, because it definitely will not feel good at the beginning. But because the alternative is so much more painful: Cycling, running away, until the physical pain matches the emotional trauma. That is exactly Matt’s fear for his brother and uncles, and he has the courage to sit them down and tell them.
That’s real courage. Although, courage and bravery are often confused with silence. Aaron makes this clear when he gives the film one of its closing messages: “Courage is a wonderful thing, but there comes a time when you have to be ready to let go.” Stop trying to be strong. Stop running away, because it’s not necessary and it’s just more painful. It’s all right here for you, at this family reunion, staring you in the face, slapping you across the cheek with his questions and his love for you and for the family he will leave behind. It’s all here at the fireside, in Matt and because of Matt.
“Breaking the cycle” offers a taste of what family reunions should really be about. They should be about a fireside chat between generations of Austin men, about adults with tough questions for the people who are most important to them, and about loved ones who care enough to listen to those questions and give back the most honest answers possible. Of course there should be some fun too, and the Austin family is good at fun. But fun is easy, and it can also be an easy distraction. At the end of the day, at the end of the ride, what is most clear is that before fun can mean anything, the harder cycles have to be broken, and with the film this one family seems to have started that process off beautifully.
http://www.aridewithmatt.com/?page_id=71 (what is Huntington’s Disease?)
http://www.aridewithmatt.com/?page_id=9 (the team)
IMDb: About Huntington’s Disease: http://www.aridewithmatt.com/?page_id=71
The Production Team: http://www.aridewithmatt.com/?page_id=9