Documentary Review: Filming and financing Mom’s Bucket List — “Duty Free”

“Duty Free” is a featherlight feel-good documentary about a broke son’s efforts to give something back to his equally-broke mother when she loses her job.

Here are the heart-tugging “hooks” to this Mother’s Day gift. Rebecca Danigelis is an English immigrant, a single mom. The job she lost, the one that supported them, was cleaning hotel rooms or supervising their cleaning, for 40 years. She sent one son, Sian-Pierre Regis, to college and he became a freelance journalist for CNN and other outlets, and she supports an older son who lives in a group home with other independent but mentally-ill adults.

And when she was forced out of that job, Mom was 75.

As Rebecca lives in Boston, one of America’s most expensive cities, and her son works (mostly) for CNN, it’s not like he can just float her, write her a check to prop her up (if you know what CNN pays). He watched the way her employer found an excuse to push her out the door and sees her difficulty in lining up a new job at 75 to supplement her Social Security and wonders how he can help her “attack this next stage in life.”

His brainstorm? Crowd-fund her bucket list, all the things she never got to do or couldn’t afford to do, and then film it for a cute Mother’s Day card of a documentary.

“To be a mother, you always put your kids first,” Rebecca says. Maybe Sian-Pierre can put her first, for once.

With him wired into the media world, the fund-raising was media-assisted, as was the promoting of this film.

And as the son hears her decide what she’s always wanted to do — from the mundane and cheap (“Take a hip hop dance class.”) to the cutesy and semi-exotic (“Sky diving in Hawaii.”) — he gives the impression that he’s just learning about her first marriage, a cancer diagnosis that caused her to give up her daughter for adoption in Britain.

So we hear her explain the decision to give up that daugher, and see her tearful reunion with her daughter and the other survivors of her British family.

Every so often, our director-fundraiser-narrator lets on that what happened to his mother is not unique as she fields donations and fan letters from across America and the world (again, media-connections pay off). It’s called “ageism,” but I don’t hear the word cross his lips.

While the very existence of “Duty Free” points to the fact that hard-working American seniors are facing a retirement they can’t afford, that our “social safety net” has fallen woefully behind the rest of the world, there’s no “journalism” here about that elephant in the room either.

And how does a journalist know so little about his mother’s past? How does he mention those cold facts and leave them hanging there?

To get mean about it, our ever-smiling, self-promoting “lifestyle-and-culture” haircut-changing on-air TV host isn’t really illuminating a problem. He’s papering over it and getting a lot of free travel for himself and Mom as he does.

Ageism is a very big deal and a serious American civil rights shortcoming. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid aren’t enough to ensure a comfortable retirement. Talking about it in all the TV interviews ABOUT the film while your somewhat vapid movie all-but-ignores it doesn’t cut it.

The “happy ending” of his movie is more sobering than uplifting, and might be the only pointed-messaging in all of “Duty Free.” Mom finds another job — at 78.

That’s not to say “Duty Free” isn’t worth a look, maybe with your mother, this Mother’s Day. But maybe the broader subject needed a more journalistic second set of eyes, someone willing to ask hard questions and get answers.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Rebecca Danigelis, Sian-Pierre Regis

Credits: Directed and narrated by Sian-Pierre Regis.

Running time: 1:13

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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