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The First Step

Cody Unser became paralyzed in 1999 when her immune system attacked her spinal cord. She developed an intense headache, and numbness crept up from her legs to her hips and finally to her chest, all in under an hour. The symptoms were part of an uncommon neurological disorder called transverse myelitis. She was 12 years old.

Cody: The First Step recounts the life of Cody Unser, now 22, and documents her fight to walk again. Interviews with her mother and father (racecar driver Al Unser Jr.) offer heartbreaking details about the turbulent time in the hospital when they didn't know if she was going to survive. Personal video diaries with Cody, in which she talks about the minutiae of life in a wheelchair, offer candor and depth not available if this had been shot by a third party.

In the film, Cody makes a concerted effort to steer clear of sappiness. Gorgeous, young, sensual, and determined, she explodes stereotypes about the disabled. She is in a relationship, sexually active, and fiercely independent. "I definitely have a sex drive," she declares in an attempt to "clear the air" of any misconceptions that disabled women are "broken vessels." She tailors her studies to promote her objective, creating a new major called biopolitics that addresses the influence of politics on medical research. And because she knows she's in a unique position when it comes to name recognition, she actively lobbies for more funding for stem cell research.

Her efforts to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries put her in contact with many figures sympathetic to her cause (New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson makes a cameo in the film) as well as people against it. After a montage in which supporters and opponents of stem cell research drown out her voice, the film transitions to its most emotional and effective clip: a one-and-a-half-minute video of Cody struggling to get out of the shower. The scene is uncomfortable and feels particularly invasive; but by pushing audiences' comfort levels, it is a powerful way to put the debate in perspective.

The rest of the film offers a glimpse of her foundation, called Cody's Great Scuba Adventure, which takes disabled men and women on scuba-diving trips (no gravity means equal footing). It also includes an educational segment about her treatment at John Hopkins University. Her medical team offers expertise and confirms that recent scientific advances will soon help Cody, and others like her, walk again.

Despite a few flaws (the musical score is almost laughable, it's so heavy-handed), Cody is deeply inspiring, to-the-point at just over an hour, and based on a realistic hope. The biological research for a cure already exists, says one of her doctors. "She's not going to be an old lady by the time she walks again." Sure, unless politics continue to get in the middle.
Mon., Nov. 2, 6 p.m., 2009

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Erica K. Landau

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