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Review: Selma Blair faces MS with humor, strength and messy honesty in new documentary

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Illness is the body’s unwanted guest. And for an actor who relies on thought-into-action as the instrument of their livelihood, a nervous system disease can feel like a triple whammy — attacking the body, the career, the soul.

Selma Blair’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in August 2018 was just that kind of news, and like any camera-loving performer, in her case one known for an insouciant glamour, she wanted to put on a brave face for the world. She made appearances — even glitzy ones, like the 2019 Oscars, her cane instantly a chic accessory — and gave interviews that spoke of valiantly making do. But the reality, as she would also reveal on social media in heartbreaking posts, was that those were what they were: moments. Away from the glare, the fear and fragility of her new world took over. She was suffering, as a physical being and a person.

It’s safe to say no well-established artist with the healthy type of ego wants their next starring project to be about them at their most vulnerable, instead of what they can produce at their fullest capability. But with the documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair,” Rachel Fleit’s up-close chronicle of the “Cruel Intentions” star’s life with MS, Blair uses the intimate follow spot to offer up a confessional self-portrait with no less blood, sweat, laughter and tears than a scripted role might demand. She may have a terrible co-star inside trying to upstage her, but with humor, strength and messy honesty, Blair makes a memorable case for why her show must go on.

The first scene is its own poignant depiction of life, interrupted, as we watch the sharp-witted Blair at home in front of a mirror, applying makeup to her turbaned visage for a bit of Norma Desmond dress-up, and offering a hilarious running commentary on beauty, social media, stardom, her judgmental mom and what she hopes this documentary will be for the similarly afflicted. Then, mid-interview, her illness makes an entrance: tiring her, distorting her speech and wreaking havoc on her motor control. She closes her eyes to shut off the stimulus that makes things worse. Through tears, she gives voice to a sense of shame.

Selma Blair in an image from the documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair.”

(Discovery+)

Blair lives with her grade-school-age son Arthur, and when she’s not succumbing to fatigue, her big personality is his ultimate play companion. He’s also the reason she’s eager to try an experimental, risky stem cell transplant as a bid to prolong a life she once treated with reckless disregard. She speaks remorsefully of a tabloid-covered public meltdown (before her diagnosis, but when symptoms were appearing) that spurred a turn toward faith and away from alcohol. Now, dealing with an incurable disease as a single parent, she’s committed to being “a better person,” which means even taking a more charitable view of her ailing mother, a dramatic figure (heard but not seen except in photographs) whose complexity she feels she understands more.

The trip to Chicago for the rigorous, chemo-intensive therapy — a controversial clinical trial that has since ended — is the expected rollercoaster of hope, pain, tears, laughter and dark wit. There are a few loved ones in tow, but Blair’s eccentric openness to demystifying such a personal journey makes the someday viewer into one more confidante. It’s easy to share her jumble of doubt and optimism, so we’re invested in what happens when she returns home expecting the miraculous and realizing that life — especially life with a disease like MS — is more complicated than that.

“Introducing, Selma Blair,” which carries its leading lady through the start of the pandemic, doesn’t entirely know how to bring its intimate portrait to what we typically think of as a satisfying close. But there’s even a kind of honesty in that, too. Blair has been forced to think a lot about endings and beginnings, and what starring in one’s own life means. We can only hope that for Blair it’s an ongoing conversation, and a pursuit she controls, illness be damned.

‘Introducing, Selma Blair’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 15, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; available Oct. 21 on Discovery+

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