“Some assembly required”
It’s not difficult to know what’s coming as soon as a Marine (Chris Gouchoe) and his wife (Mandy Moody) are seen discovering the discrepancy in their math counting down the days until his return home. She has it marked on her calendar as forty-two to go while he gently explains it’s actually forty-three. A lot can happen in twenty-four hours, though, so we of course must assume the worst. Depending on your mettle and strength, death can almost prove an easier result than the future many veterans and their families deal with after war. Surviving as a wounded warrior means enduring pain and struggle every single day opposite a populace unable to hide its pity and a self-doubt towards whether it’s worth continuing on. I can’t imagine the latter without someone there to help pull you through.
Chris King‘s Birthday is an emotionally visceral collage of that pain as well as the love necessary to keep it at bay. The short is twelve minutes long but only about half of the runtime includes words. Rather than spoon-feed a distillation of this tale dripping in sentimentality and cliché, King decides to show everything as a time lapse connected by one commonality: tears. How could he not under the circumstances presented? Whether it’s Moody hearing the news her husband was in critical condition, the first moment seeing each other in the hospital, his homecoming to a world forever altered, or the pride and joy of successfully traversing the tragic landscape set before them, none of it can be experienced without a complete dismantling of the steely façade we try so hard to keep up.
This isn’t an easy watch as far as subject matter goes, but it’s an inspiring one we should all take notice of to remember before criticizing the armed forces or belittling the harrowing journey many travel once the war’s complete. Not everyone experiences glaring physical scars like Gouchoe’s Marine—oftentimes what’s missing is unseen, psychological, and even harder to overcome. Birthday serves as a document for both portraying the chaos of finding your loved one decimated and conjuring the strength to be present to put him/her back together. This is why the two lengthy vignettes of activity against nothing but the score grab us by the heart and wring us dry. It isn’t smiling and accepting some second chance at life, thanking God for such bittersweet “good fortune”. Every step forward is a profound victory and not lightly won.
King does a great job picking and choosing which moments to use. There’s the good and bad, both depicted by those universal tears. What makes it so authentic, though, is the fact that neither Moody nor Gouchoe fake “brave faces” for the camera. They aren’t disrespecting the countless Americans who are going through these exact circumstances by wrongly expressing how it’s possible to not feel every single second, public appearance be damned. We see the struggle in Gouchoe’s eyes when he arrives home, sorrow mixed with joy that he cannot even pretend to mask. Their victory together isn’t rewarded by a sigh of relief—it’s marked with a devastating embrace acknowledging the fight continues on. This is a portrait of heroes, plural. The soldiers who give everything and the ones at home who attempt to give it back.